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.


Mar 31 2015

Write or Call

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nov 19 2014

In Transit

The plane taxied down the runway toward the terminal and came to a stop, waiting for the jetway to connect. Eager passengers leaned forward, hands on the seatbelt clasps, poised to jump up from their seats the moment the familiar bell signaled their freedom, only to be left standing in awkward hunched-over poses, unable to advance for the crowd of standing people in the aisle. Sometimes I find myself amongst the hurry-up-to-wait crowd, moving too early from my seat out of restlessness or boredom more than anything else, not because I’m in such a rush to deplane.
airplane_flies
I like to smile in airports, just to put myself in deliberate contrast to the crowds of confused and distracted faces. If you walk around an airport smiling, people wonder what you’re up to. I like to be mindful in an airport, walking at a strong pace but fully aware of each gate and kiosk I pass. Most people don’t like airports, possibly they’re uncomfortable about flying or eager to get where they’re going or else tired of traveling and all they can think about is getting home. I don’t mind airports. I like the buzz of people about to go somewhere, the motion and movement, the collective anticipation of travel, all in one place. There are exceptions, obviously: on difficult travel days with weather or mechanical delays, or long trips with missed connections, then I would not praise an airport so highly. But on most days, most trips, it’s a place I like to be. It means I’m going on a trip, something that suits me fine.

I also like airport bars. Despite their overpriced cocktails and the lingering scent of over-fried food, I like what happens when you push your roll-away up beside the stool and settle in. It’s more festive and friendly than the rows of attached metal chairs in bleak arm-to-arm formations in the waiting area of the gates. You’ve got your TV screens flashing behind the bar and some music playing. The bartenders and waiters have a special camaraderie, bonded together in response, I suppose, to such a transient and temporary clientele. The snippets of their banter heartwarming, their jokes and shared stories well known to each other amidst a sea of unknown, ephemeral stories belonging to strangers on their way to somewhere else.

The smart phone is the worst thing to happen to the airport bar. Back when I first started traveling for business, in the days when we dressed up to travel, the corner seat at an airport bar afforded you interesting people watching and convivial conversation with strangers. True, the occasional bore could chat your ear off with observations and opinions gleaned from his banal life, but more often a friendly moment passed the time quickly, or occasionally even a poignant exchange could leave you thinking deeply and with gratitude about something important in your life. Now most people just nuzzle into their handheld screens, chatting with the rest of the world while ignoring the perfectly nice human being standing just beside them.
painted_squares
It’s true I might take my phone out and give it a look, but if there’s someone nearby, I’ll set it down.

Last week I had two hours to kill in the Phoenix airport, en route to Mexico where I stole a few days with the Fiesta Nazi at her winter home. The mid-week airfare to fly to a job in Texas went from astronomical to reasonable if I stayed over a Saturday night. And Mexico is close to Texas, right? My job behind me and the prospect of three days with a good gal-pal gave me a particularly wide airport smile as I marched to the corner stool at a bar that happened to be adjacent to my gate, right away joking with the bartender who called me sweetie and darlin’ in the first twenty seconds of taking my order.

“Don’t mind me,” she said in response to my teasing. “I’m a bar whore, I say that to all the customers.” Quickly I learned this was true, as we all got the sweetheart treatment when she set the little napkin down in front of us. But I liked her candor about it.

A white-mustached man with a proper cowboy hat took a nearby stool, eyeing my Bloody Mary and pointing to it while he ordered one, too. His phone rang and he plunged into a conversation with what sounded like his wife. The call was interrupted by someone else, and then someone else, and when he finally set the phone down he told the bartender, and me, about his son’s truck accident. Nobody had been hurt, fortunately. The son, miles away from home, as was this man, was trying to sort out the details. It wasn’t that he was talking so loudly, it was the proximity of our seating at the bar. I tried not to mind his business, but eventually I couldn’t help but look in his direction.

He had tears in his eyes. Not the sobbing out of control kind, not even sad tears – there was no grief in them – but tears of concern and tears of helplessness to do anything to console or assist his son, so far away.

He apologized for talking too loudly. I assured him that he had not disturbed me.

“Your tears are beautiful,” I told him. He cocked his head sideways at first, but then, nodded in agreement.
concerned_face
“It wadn’t even his fault. Now he’s scared he’ll lose his job. It’s his first job.”

I didn’t say anything, not at first. Sometimes silence is what gives people permission to say the thing they really mean to say.

“I love my son and I hate not being able to help him.”

I waited a beat, thinking about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how it’ll be when they grow up. How it is already. “Seems like no matter how old they get, we’re always worrying about them.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, raising his glass to mine.

We kept talking, both of us leaving our phones dark on the bar, and even a few others nearby chimed in with stories about their kids, teenagers or adults, still invoking parental concern. Caring about your children, even if they’re fully grown, even if they drive you mad, is a universal theme.

My flight was called to board, and I wished the man well, and his son, too. I paid my sweetheart bartender, leaving her a big tip for all her exaggerated terms of endearment – I guess that works! – and pulled my bag behind me toward the gate. This time I smiled not because it’s the deliberate thing I do, but because of how that man loved his son so much, and how much I love my girls.


Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
winston_on_the_road
In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


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.


Aug 10 2014

We Leave at Dawn

I take it back. All that mush I wrote in the last post about our little adventure. The family car tour across the United States is taking its toll. Too many consecutive days of too many consecutive hours crushed together in an automobile makes it hard to forget about the misery of too much proximity. The constant call of the kids from the backseat, the packing, unpacking and packing again of the suitcases, the smushed stale or soggy sandwiches from the cooler, the cracker and pretzel crumbs all over the car, the overall organization required to keep a disorganized crew on the road and heading east. Nothing like a little adventure to tire you out.
on_route
Yes, we’ve seen some amazing places and reunited with old friends who’ve taken us in and given us luxurious shelter, tasty and nourishing food and a healthy supply of hooch. Yes, we’ve seen the beauty of America. There have been remarkable moments that I’m sure we’ll never forget. But there have been just as many moments when I wanted to lean over and strangle those who purport to be the people I love most in the world.

~ ~ ~

We left at dawn (again). That meant being up before sunrise, packing the cooler, nudging Buddy-roo, the professional sleeper, and her sister to wake up enough to walk themselves to the car, but not to wake so much that they’d stay that way for the first leg of the long drive. My mother-in-love, despite our admonition, set her alarm to coincide with our early departure to help us with the last of our preparations. Clothes had been selected and placed in the car in the girls’ designated seats – Buddy-roo has claimed the long back seat of our roomy 4WD Buick Enclave and Short-pants is content to read in the middle row bucket-seat – and all other luggage, except the dopp kits, had been stowed in the vehicle the night before.

My mother-in-love, wrapped in her white bathrobe, watched us with eyes both delighted for our visit and dismayed at our departure. Though our 5-day stay with her in Santa Fee is the longest place we plan to stay stationary on this trip, it didn’t seem long enough. She is in fantastic health for a woman in her 80s, spry and alert and more active than most women my age (me, for example) so chances are extremely good that I’ll see her many times again in our lives. But I’m still mindful of the surprises life throws at us when it comes to our parents’ generation, so I always take in a deep-breath mental photograph of her whenever we part company. She waved goodbye with that happy/sad face and even without a stitch of make-up on, and her still-sleepy eyes, she was as pretty as I’ve ever seen her.

Earlier, in Arizona, we’d driven along Route 66, where we’d stopped for lunch and achieved a classic roadside diner experience. In New Mexico, we took Route 56, which hovers beside the Santa Fe trail, another classic American passageway. The risks of a national route are slower traffic and multiple stoplights, but the reward is a distinctly scenic ride with charming windwheel_sftrailtowns, authentic roadside watering holes, kitsch historical points of interest and, to De-facto‘s delight, cheaper gas.

We saw the sun rise on the Santa Fe trail, and made good time – better than we expected – on the road much less traveled. The lack of trucks and traffic in general – we went for miles without seeing another vehicle – and the awe-inspiring western vistas kept us from killing each other on the 12.5 hour drive, our longest of the trip. Well, 12-hour drive; De-facto permitted us a 1/2-hour lunch break at a picnic table near the Edwards County, Kansas Sod House and Museum, apparently 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco, a veritable halfway point for our US trip, in both distance and duration. His rush: he’d made a hotel reservation in Kansas City. He had a fantasy about putting the girls to bed and going to a Casino with me on his arm.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” he kept shouting, from the driver’s seat, in his best mid-western hillbilly accent. Mostly to tease me, since I have expressed on many occasions my lack of enthusiasm for the activity of gambling, and even more for the despairing spirit one encounters in an American casino. The windowless tombs with all the flashing lights, the unrelenting noise of the slot machines and the longing, lonely look of people hoping for that elusive big win. But De-facto’s a charmer and it’s a rare thing to see him part with his money so frivolously, so how could I not agree to go along?

I was raised with James Bond movies so I pulled out a dressier dress from the bottom of my suitcase and opened my jewelry bag for the first time in weeks and even donned my nude patent-leather heeled sandals. After so many consecutive days in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, standard road trip wear, it felt good to get duded up a little. We were the best-dressed people in the joint. Everyone else was in jeans, or even shorts and tank-tops – as the Kansas City casino crowd is slightly different than the Casino on La Croisette in Cannes. We may have looked good, but we bet poorly, so it took us about an hour to lose all our chips. We were up by 60% early on, but De-facto was having too much fun watching me throw the dice to cash in. “We’re just hittin’ our stride,” De-facto said, in his gambling-guy accent. I was rolling lucky at the craps table, for a while, but it was the Black Jack that really did us in.
in_the_car
The next day wasn’t quite a dawn departure, but we couldn’t dilly-dally. Friends were to congregate to meet us at a bar on the north side of Chicago at 7:00, so we needed to make another long slog, this time from Kansas City to the Windy City. There were non-interstate routes that might have been more appealing, but because we hadn’t gotten up at dawn again, we had a tighter schedule. It was raining. The highways weren’t as well kept as those we’d traversed previously. The truckers taunted us by pulling out and passing each other, making it hard for us to make up any lost time. We ate leftover pizza from the night before, rolling along at 75 mph.

~ ~ ~

In pretty much every state, it’s possible to find a radio station that’s a time machine, propelling De-facto and me back to our youth. One song after another, each tethered to a high school memory. Journey, Aerosmith, The Cars, Van Halen, Bad Company, ACDC, Tom Petty, Creedence, Steve Miller, Heart, The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin. You know this kind of station, the classic rock station. You kind of hate it because it’s so dated, but you kind of love it because you know the words to every song. And after you’ve been penned up in a box on wheels for six-plus hours, and you’re just a little bit punchy, it’s easy to get a bit over-excited. Rock’n’roll anthem Stairway to Heaven is a song that used to make me groan – I worked at a rock radio station and it was overplayed – but I caught myself cheering when I heard the opening chords. De-facto lowered the volume long enough to tell the girls that this was a rock’n’roll classic, commanding them to listen to the lyrics. Then he cranked the sound back up and we sang along, word for word.

“This isn’t rock’n’roll,” Buddy-roo said.

“It’s a ballad at the start,” I said. “Just wait, it’ll kick in.”

When it did, we were singing along at the top of our lungs and dancing like head-bangers in our seats. Buddy-roo, disgusted by our behavior, took the fleece she’d been using as a pillow and wrapped it around her head to drown out the noise and to keep from having to look at her stupid parents. This only inspired us to continue. She did get the last laugh; De-facto and I were so caught up in the music that we missed our exit. We had to turn around and backtrack to get back on the right road. It’s happened to us several times on the trip. We get lost in the music, and nearly get lost.

~ ~ ~

“Girls, look! We’re about to cross the mighty Mississippi!” De-facto, our own Clark Griswald, shouted it exuberantly, his fist in the air. Short-pants barely raised her head from her book, Buddy-roo re-arranged her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, their tandem sign language for who cares. I’m afraid they are saturated with national parks, 4-H styled museums the_Beanand points of interest, or just tired of being hitched to our wagon on this cross country tour, that their best defense is to ignore us. But we keep nudging them along. At every stop, Buddy-roo begs to stay just one more day. The most recent host becomes her new best friend, and that stop, the best on the trip. Both girls moaned about being dragged into Chicago, until they discovered the fountain and the Bean at Millennium Park. We couldn’t linger too long, though, as friends were expecting us at our next stop, in Ohio, and the heavy city traffic had already slowed us down.

We’ve been on the road twenty days, crossed ten states and we’ve still many miles to go. But the Atlantic draws near and another city beckons, with more family and friends waiting to see us. The road calls, whether we like it or not. Tomorrow, once again, we leave at dawn.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
road_ahead_and_feet
“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
golden_gate
San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Jul 21 2014

That Big Fiesta

“Wait!” Buddy-roo screamed from the upstairs window of the country house as I walked to the car. “I want to give her another hug goodbye!”

I heard her pound down the stairs before she rushed out the door and took a hold of That Big Doll. tbd_hug_goodbye

“You’re sure?” I was afraid of the answer. For years I’ve been trying to remove this freaky nearly life-size doll from our lives. I managed to exile her to the country house, where she was tucked away in a back room, in a corner nearly out of sight beside a wardrobe. But when De-facto cleared out the room to lay a new floor, she ended up in plain sight again, standing by the fireplace in the main room.

When the Fiesta Nazi first encountered That Big Doll she got that nasty twinkle in her eye that I find especially endearing and suggested in a conspiratorial tone that it might be a humorous series of moments I’d we were to drag her along on an afternoon bar crawl at the fiesta in Pamplona. One could imagine instantly the clever (at least to us) stunts we might pull off, with our primary objective, of course, the free drinks we might secure with her in tow. But every time I brought this up, Buddy-roo would hear none of it. She stomped her feet and pounded the table, no, no, no. If I pursued the idea further, there were tears.

This year, as every year, I asked – a throwaway comment with expectation of the usual resistance – and I was surprised by her response.

“Sure,” she said, all cool I-don’t-care-like, “it’s time to let her go.”

I hadn’t asked if she was sure about it, afraid she might change her mind. Which is why when I blurted it out as she gave That Big Doll an extra goodbye hug I wished I hadn’t said it. What if she changed her mind now, so close to the getaway?

No need to be concerned. After the embrace, she handed me the doll so I could put it in the trunk. The knees don’t bend so it’s hard to put her in a seat, her legs only spread out in a suggestive V-shape – and we drove off to the promise of her next adventure.

~ ~ ~

When you carry a nearly life-sized plastic doll around under your arm, you have to be nonchalant about it. I channelled my father, remembering how he once took a three-foot long Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum box with him to meet my brother at the airport. In the ’70s, an advertising campaign featured wrigleys_flavorpeople walking around with huge boxes of Wrigley’s gum under their arms, signifying its big, long-lasting flavor. My sister’s boyfriend worked as a stock boy at the local five-and-dime store and when the Wrigley’s display was dismantled, gave the box to my sister after extracting her promise to carry it through the school cafeteria during lunch period, which she did without the embarrassment he’d intended. After that, she kept the box on display on top of a chest of drawers in her bedroom.

In those days you could pass through airport security without a ticket, to meet an arriving passenger as they got off the plane. My father trooped through the terminal toward the gate with this huge cardboard box under his arm. People turned their heads and stared. A woman – an enthusiastic stranger – came up to him.

“Where did you get that big Wrigley’s Gum box?”

“Shut up lady,” my father said, out of the side of his mouth, “You’re ruining the commercial.”

I carried That Big Doll through three train stations. I acted as if this were the most natural thing in the world, but couldn’t help but notice people’s reactions. They either laughed at me or, in an amusing stance of denial, pretended not to notice. I know my father would have approved: when I boarded my last train, toting a fairly large suitcase in one hand and That Big Doll in the other, a man seated nearby offered to help. He reached for my valise, intending to lift it to the overhead rack. I thrust the giant doll in to his arms for him to hold while and heaved the suitcase up myself.

~ ~ ~

Of course we dressed her in the fiesta whites. The red faja had to be wrapped three times around her tiny, not-at-all-proportional waist in order on_the_fence2 to hang properly. A red panuelo tied at the neck put her in full fiesta uniform, and it must be said she didn’t look quite as wanton once she was wearing the traditional white and red.

She spent most of the week standing at the window of our apartment, waving out the window. I had to wait to be in the right mood to take her out. Part of the joy of the fiesta is being unencumbered with responsibilities; there’s an agreement among my cuadrilla that there are no obligations, or that if you take on any kind of obligation, the others are not required to participate. It’s one week a year, for me, that I have nothing I absolutely have to do. I can follow the rituals of the fiesta or wander away to something else, on a whim, if I choose. Having a plastic doll to watch out for, even though I intended to leave behind, felt counter-intuitive.

But the day before I left (it was now or never) the spirit moved me and we slipped on her manoletinas and took her out to the street. The fact that she has a strange adult body but is only as tall as a little girl shocked and then amused the people she met. She made friends. She was held, carried, danced around and dipped. She was put into strange poses at café tables and bar stools. She did planks and push-ups in the street. She posed with anyone who asked, and some who didn’t. She applauded a band of mariachis and found herself wearing a sombrero. She was thrown under a bus (while it was stopped at a light) and if only I could have gotten my camera out in time to capture the bus driver in hysterical fits of laughter. She was good fun, in the daytime.

At night something changed. The mood on the street was different. Instead of being the quirky doll-dressed-in-white, her plastic shapeliness took on a different connotation. The pranks and stunts ceased to be clever, and started to feel not-so-funny. She wasn’t received with amusement, but instead with lascivious grins or looks of disdain. Given that there was also a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women at this year’s fiesta, That Big Doll – who on her own is just wrong – felt even more wrong. We took her back to the apartment, and left her at her window perch.

It was my intention to leave her in the back of some bar, or in a random doorway, tbd_runninghappy to be rid of her for good. But I couldn’t do it. Even Fiesta Nazi agreed, it was hard to leave her. That Big Doll had grown on us, being such a good sport at the fiesta. Instead of leaving her to be spoiled in the street, we left her in a closet to surprise our landlord. And she’ll be there next year, if the spirit moves us, to take her out again.

That Big Doll absolutely had the big adventure I’d hoped for. And Buddy-roo was tickled by the pictures of her antics; check out her Tumblr if you want to see for yourself how she survived that big fiesta.


May 12 2014

The Days Away

I closed the refrigerator door, giving it that extra press to be sure it was firmly shut, eyeing the notice attached to the door with a magnet. Short-pants had a school field trip coming up and these were the instructions about what to bring: a small backpack, a metro card, a bottle of water, a hat, rain gear, comfortable shoes. I’d suggested that we assemble her bag in advance because I was leaving the day before her trip, and I wouldn’t be able to help her the night before. But now I was about to leave – the taxi would come for me in ten minutes – and we hadn’t done it.

“You’ll have to prepare your backpack yourself,” I told her, thinking that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She’s at an age now where she should be able to collect a few necessities in a bag on her own.

“I thought we were going to do it together.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t now how. It’s that she relishes anything we can do together. She likes to hang out with me. A game of Bananagrams together delights her. She still comes in and cuddles with me in the morning. Or out of nowhere, standing in the kitchen, throws her arms around me in an unsolicited hug.
full_hearted
“You know how to do this,” I assured her.

She lifted her head up from her cereal bowl. “Do you have to go?”

This is always the part when my heart sinks and I swallow hard. There’s nothing to say to appease her, so I usually just shrug and give her a hug.

The thing is, I do have to go. If I didn’t get on an airplane every once in a while to go off on my own, I wouldn’t be the mother they love. I’d go stir crazy and my grumpiness alone would have an effect on them. I think it helps them to be independent, to see me doing my own things and coming home happy to see them. I know it keeps me sane.

Still, it’s hard. That chattering chorus sings behind me as I drag my suitcase out the door: you are neglecting them. You are missing important moments, and they won’t be long forever. You’re selfish. What kind of mother leaves her children, especially on mother’s day? This cacophony serenades me every trip, and though I can see my way out of the noise it makes, I am still surprised that I fall victim to these skeptical voices. They represent something I profess to reject: the firm hand of societal expectations about motherhood. But they are firmly embedded in our culture. I don’t necessarily pay them heed, but every time I leave I have to step over their sharp edges to get to the door.

~ ~ ~

While I’m gone I hardly check in. When I’m away for work, which is usually pretty intense, the timing never seems to fit what’s happening at home. If it’s an escape trip, well, where’s the escape if you’re constantly phoning home? Plus it’s disruptive. When the girls were younger and De-facto called home from the road, it did more harm than good. They’d be playing along, living in the present that is the world of young toddlers, and his call would remind them that he was gone. The tears that came after hanging up seemed hardly worth the quick check-in, which was usually a pretty inane conversation anyway.

It’s the same for us. There’s a certain disconnect when one of us is away – for work or fun – and the other is home administering the day-to-day routine. The conversations are filled with lost-in-translation moments that leave us feeling further apart than before the call. We’ve gotten into the practice of keeping correspondence to a minimum, which means staying present, mentally, in the place that we’re working or visiting, doing the things that we do without the angst of not being home. It seems like a waste to be someplace interesting only to spend your time there wishing you weren’t. airplane_fliesNot that I don’t ever call and say hello – but it might happen every few days, not a few times a day. This way, by the end of the trip, I’m missing him and the girls pretty fiercely, which makes the coming home part, all the more sweet.

~ ~ ~

Three trips in May means I’m gone seventeen days and all or part of four weekends. I missed the Spanish Mother’s Day a week ago and the American Mother’s Day yesterday. I’ll be missing the French Fête des Mères at the end of the month, too. I remember hesitating before booking all these trips, one for work, two for personal visits, and wondering if the time I was allotting myself at home between them was sufficient. I can tell you now it’s not. My overdose of voyaging has put me off my drug of choice. I’m longing for my own bed and my own people and even, maybe, a bit of humdrum routine. This is the plan for June, but right now next month seems ages away. I can’t complain. I get to visit some festive and exotic, interesting places: Sevilla last week, Tanzania this week. But at the moment my family feels too far away. I’m surprised to be counting the days that I’m away from home, and even more surprised to be counting the days until I get back.