Apr 28 2011

The Gifted Bag

After the buzzer rang, I pressed the button that unlocks the door to the street downstairs without asking who was there. I knew it was Buddy-roo returning home after a spontaneous play-date-turned-dinner-and-homework-date with a friend in the neighborhood. Normally a social activity of this nature on a school night would raise eyebrows, but this one included homework support from a native French speaking parent, so it was allowed. No doubt they covered twice the ground in half the time.

I opened and left ajar the door to our apartment, so that after climbing the four flights of stairs she would not have to ring the doorbell and wait again. This is our typical letting-people-in-the-door routine. How long it takes to walk from the entrance, up the stairs to our door depends on the urgency and fitness of the arriver. When it’s one of the girls, if they don’t get distracted by a neighbor in the courtyard or on the stairs, it’s usually within 3 or 4 minutes that you can hear their little feet and out-of-breath voices as they enter the apartment and close the door behind them.

A good long five minutes went by without any little feet. I went out to check, leaning out the long window of the hallway to peer into the courtyard. No sight of Buddy-roo, but then the distinct sound of her crying in the stairwell below. I called down to her. Her friend’s mother – who happens also to be a friend of mine – answered back. “It’s okay. We’re just having a little situation down here.”

I looked out the window at the not-quite-night-sky settling in on the rooftops and chimneys. It’d been such a calm, peaceful evening. We’d been downright civilized, De-facto, Short-pants and I, reading together, quietly. The wailing at the bottom of the stairs, a harsh reminder of what had been missing, up until now.

I pattered down in my stocking feet to where Buddy-roo was standing, in the foyer with her friend, the two of them in angry tears. The friend’s mother looked up at me apologetically. I tried to telepath to her a look that said, “No worries, this could so easily have happened on my watch.”

The story spilled out. The purse, a tacky, pink, vinyl, Winx-merchandized accessory (I didn’t buy it for her – it was given to us) had allegedly been a gift from Buddy-roo to her friend during a play-date a few weeks ago. She’d forgotten about it, I’m sure, until she saw it again on this visit. She probably made a remark like, “Oh, I left my bag here,” causing the severe dropping of the jaw of her little friend, who’d thought it was a present to keep, which is probably how it was presented. The discussion turned debate, and then turned debacle. The lovely afternoon-into-evening play-date was ending in a big fight, all about where that bag should live.

I said the trash would be an excellent location. (Not out loud, though.)

The objective, at this point, was to calm the girls down so they could part, if not as friends, at least without tears. But this ugly purse was the stumbling block. Buddy-roo insisted it was a loan, not a gift. Her friend believed that it was hers to keep. Neither one of them would give an inch – they were absolutely stubborn – leaving the mothers to negotiate.

After a few halfhearted and unsuccessful tries at mediation – in retrospect how ridiculous that I even tried – I put my foot down. I was tired, it was late and this was annoying. “I don’t know what else to do, guys, we’ll have to sort this out later because it’s time for bed. Now.” I shrugged at the other mother, who I’m sure would have loved to have done the same 30-minutes before, but felt she ought to try to bring Buddy-roo home to us in happier spirits. I dragged my wailing daughter up the stairs. I didn’t even notice, until after she’d gotten into bed and I was doing my own straightening-up-before-bed ritual, that the purse had been on her shoulder at the time, so it’s ended up back on our property.

And it’s sitting there, that ugly pink bag with all those cheezy smiling characters on it, taunting me. In the morning after the girls leave for school and I’m all alone, it whispers to me, “whose am I?” It makes me feel compelled to take the high motherly moral ground, even though I’d like nothing better than to bury my head in the pillows of my bed and wake up when Buddy-roo is twenty-six. (No doubt, she would have appropriated all my jewelry while I was slumbering through her dramatic puberty and adolescence…)

I’m of two minds. The first: we have to have a talk about it, and Buddy-roo needs to either return the bag that she gifted to her friend or make a real apology and come to terms with the misunderstanding. The second: Just drop it. It’s a silly fight between two 7-year-olds and though I’m still thinking about it (as is my friend, the other mother) the girls have both forgotten it. Next time somebody “gifts” something, we simply need to step in and model how to clarify: is it a gift for good, or just a little while?

One is correct. The other is convenient.

What would you do?


Dec 13 2010

An Energetic Action

The homework routine is much easier for Buddy-roo these days. The tears and drama have abated. It’s still hard to get her started, but the resistance to starting is diminished. The reward for completing homework is clearly established and we’re strict about it, so the anguish we experienced during those first weeks of school has vanished, more or less.

She’s still pokey. There are a dozen preparatory rituals that must be enacted, pencils and erasers laid out just so. When she finally begins, we must be vigilant against distractions, hard because Short-pants forgets and asks her sister a question, or starts talking to me about something that peaks Buddy-roo’s curiosity and then her concentration (if you can call it that) is broken. Or Buddy-roo looks over at the Christmas tree and must go over to move her favorite angel ornament two inches to the left. She returns to her work and writes one sentence. Up again to retrieve that angel to bring it back to the table where the homework is happening. “The angel wants to help me.” Right.

I sit beside her and use my calm but firm voice. (Any calmer she ignores me, any firmer she cries.) “Do you think you can finish a line without stopping? Let’s try it. Now.”

I flip through her agenda to review the rest of her assignments. Two vocabulary lists to review for an évaluation the next day, plus studying a science unit about vertebrates, also for a test. What? (Brass horns swell in dissonant chord.) This is a lot, for Buddy-roo, to do in one night. She has a particularly tough time with vocabulary. It’s always baffling to me because whenever we start to prepare for one of these quizzes, it’s as if she’s never encountered the words before. They must go over them in class, in the context of the story or subject they’re covering, right? But it’s like her brain has no glue for these words. She has no recall of their meaning. At all.

So we have to make it a game. While she takes fifteen minutes to copy four sentences for another assignment – with calisthenics in between every three words – I cut colored Post-it notes into slices and write the vocabulary words on one color and the definitions on another. (This isn’t hurting my vocabulary acquisition either.) In the past we’ve drawn pictures and matched them to the words. One weekend De-facto made a store with all the items on the vocab list (using reasonable representations found around our home) and bought or sold items from her until she knew them all by heart. If you make her read the words in a book and tell you what they mean, she goes blank. Lay them out like a match-up game and she dives in.

We played the game again and again, and again, matching definitions to words, words to definitions. Some of the words just wouldn’t stick; we made up silly ways to remember them. Robust is busty and strong, solid, like Mr. Incredible. The word lutter, (which I thought meant to fight, but it’s defined in her school book as an energetic action) kept stumping her until we decided the two Ts together standing tall looked like Short-pants and Buddy-roo marching energetically in a parade. We three marched around the kitchen island three times laughing and shouting out “lutter!”

This morning she remembered it. Because we made it fun.

It makes me think about the things I intend to do in the next year. Finish that manuscript. Realize a new project with my colleagues. Polish-up my Spanish. Pick up my viola and play it again. Keep strengthening my core with pilates. I want to keep the priority list short, so it doesn’t feel like it does for Buddy-roo when she has twenty vocab words to memorize and only two hours before bedtime. And I need to make it fun. If it feels like slog, I won’t want to do it.

I want to minimize the slog in my life. I realize you can’t eliminate all of it, there’s some administration that has to be managed. But whenever possible, taking action – especially on the ideas I’ve been dreaming of – ought to be fun. What’s the maximum pleasure I can extract from doing things, rather than just striving for their completion?

My next step? Make it happen, but make it fun. It doesn’t have to be a battle. Just an energetic action.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Scott Belsky: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?


Dec 10 2010

Wise Decision

Employing the word decision could give one the impression that I actually did something to deliberately drive my life forward – or even to the side – during the last year. I didn’t decide much; 2010 was a year when things happened to me. I got pulled into the rushing rapids, and there were no overhanging branches to grab. I didn’t decide to say goodbye to my mother. She chose to stop treatment and enter hospice. I didn’t have to make any decisions; the rest of my life – my family and my work – just happened to accommodate my schedule so I could be with her until the end.

That was in February. What followed, all year, was a whirlwind of one thing after another: travel, work, responsibilities, challenges, burdens, changes, opportunities. Life just kept barreling on.

Never before have I been so behind. Never before have I had so many loose ends waving at me, so many unsorted piles and unattended tasks. The priority duties (for the most part) are (apparently) not overlooked, but otherwise my chin is barely above water. All those photos I mean to scan, those folders I want to clear out, the letters I want to write. That teetering stack of books is ridiculous; I really do want to read them all, but when? The New Yorker magazine arrives every week, I can’t keep up with it. Sometimes the issues stay in their plastic cover, piling up on the table where we put the mail. There’s that workshop I mean to take, the language I want to learn, the instrument I want to play again. The girls’ room is spilling over with out out-of-favor toys and books outgrown and clothes in their drawers that are now too short for them. I mean to spend an afternoon sorting and reordering and making bags of things to take to the French equivalent of the Goodwill. Next weekend.

Life hurls at me its great adventures and its mundane missions and there is all of it I want to do, to taste, to try to manage, to accomplish. I’m greedy about life; I say yes far too often. I overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take. Then I curse all that eagerness when I find myself running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

This could all make me crazy, and in the past, it has.

Sometime in the last few months – I can’t say when exactly, but recently – I decided not to sweat it anymore. I decided to stop worrying about what I haven’t done and what I haven’t (yet) gotten to and to stop beating myself up for it. Remorse is romantic but not terribly productive. In the end, I’ll get to what I get to.

Even before my mother was sick, she used to worry out loud about the backroom. This was the room where she stowed, over the years, her memories, her childhood scrapbooks, college folders, love letters, trip memorabilia and the general accumulation of stuff that one acquires after fifty years in the same house. She didn’t want to burden us with the disposal of those effects. I didn’t want her to worry about this. “Leave it,” I told her, “Go do what’s interesting to you. Travel. Be with your friends. We’ll clean it out later, after you’re gone.” And we did.

If I didn’t want her to make herself crazy about getting everything in perfect order, why would I do that to myself?

This life is the full-bodied one I’ve chosen, wisely or not. Sometimes it rolls in too fast, too large, too much at once. But that’s what it is and I’ll take it. I’ll take as much of life as I can and if I don’t get to everything, if I don’t get it all done, if it doesn’t all fit in the perfect order of my imagined self, well then at least it keeps things interesting.

As for how this will play out? We’ll see.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Susannah Conway: Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?


Nov 30 2010

Nobody’s Perfect

Try as I may to let our upstairs be the wild and creative universe of my children, eventually I reach a point when I can no longer endure the disorder. This is usually prompted by a predictable chain of events: Buddy-roo dilly-dallies through breakfast, and the absolute last time of departure (ALTD) to get to school on time is fast approaching so I volunteer to go up to her room and select an outfit. “Pants or a dress?” I pretend this is a fun errand. Upstairs I’m appalled at the clutter that collects in just a few days since it was last in a reasonably tidy state. “It’s okay, they’re being creative,” I say to myself, closing the drawers left wide open and snatching Short-pants’ eyeglasses up off the floor, barely managing not to flatten them, instead stepping on some tiny piece of plastic, an umbrella shaped thing that came home in the favor-bag from a birthday party. It smarts, a lot. I lose it. Get up here now and pick up your rooms! All the reasoning and thoughtful discussions go out the window. So much for being the ideal parent. But sometimes it just feels good to holler.

The results of the first trimester bilans come home. Buddy-roo’s scores are all over the board. Even Short-pants, who actually enjoys doing her homework, has inconsistent grades. I smile at anything equal to or above a score of 8/10. I try not to overreact to that glaring 5/10. I ask her how she feels about it. “I’m not that strong at geography,” she says.

I’m torn. I want to inspire her to try harder, do better. Another part of me remembers a consultant I worked with in my earliest career, Don Clifton was his name, talking about how good leaders were rarely straight-A students; they only excelled in the subjects in which they had strengths or that they felt were important. In other words, they prioritized.

We talk about how to do better in geography and I try not to harp on it. A final summary sentence about how hard she’s worked and how that really paid off with her grades. “Except that one,” I say. (But not out loud.)

I don’t want to pressure my kids to get everything right all the time. But is this a question of individual strengths and preferences or is it just plain lack of trying? It might be that she just got lazy – sometimes that’s all it is – and being reminded might help her do better the next time.

On the other hand, maybe she’s just not that strong at geography.

Buddy-roo can recite by heart entire passages from the movie Hello Dolly, or sing the most obscure song from On the Town without any practice. But ask her to conjugate the verb être, even though we’ve been over it a million times, she still can’t remember the six forms of the present tense without making a mistake. I don’t want to beat her up. But I know she can do it.

What’s the right balance of supporting and challenging your children? How do I inspire them to try to perform well – and take pride in their work – without thrusting upon them the stress of being a perfectionist?

I’m sure I make things more complicated than they need to be. My parents had no apparent angst about how to respond to my report card. Good grades were expected. If you got a B, it was met with a raised eyebrow. Getting a C was grounds for a discussion; you were called in to the living room and seated at the square card table. My parents were never cruel or harsh, and yet we lived in mild fear of disappointing them, and this was what you realized you’d done if you were called in to sit at that table. Would a psychologist today find fault in the way they held us to their standards? Maybe. But they weren’t trying to be perfect parents. They were trying to be good parents.

I sit in judgment of messy bedrooms or inconsistent grades, but what about me? Do I get it all right, all the time? Consider the piles of files and papers stashed in shelves in our office, I mean to sort through them but somehow never get to it. My taxes are never turned in without at least filing for one extension. I ran a workshop yesterday and it went well, but it was far from flawless. I’ve been writing a post about procrastination – for another blog I write with my colleagues – for three months now. (This is not even ironic anymore, it’s pathetic.)

I signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November – ambitious if you’re composing a novel from scratch, but the last unfinished chapters of my novel are already outlined, which ought to make the job easier. I started with great fervor, overshooting the suggested daily goal by a few hundred words each day in anticipation of the mid-month business travel that would interrupt the daily exercise. That trip set me back several thousand words, and when I returned home I was bombarded with things not attended to in my absence. I knew I shouldn’t let it stop me, but once I was 10,000 words behind it was too overwhelming. So that novel I’ve been writing for seven years, it’s still not done.

Oh, guess what? I’m human.

As a mother, I’m compelled to fend off the idealized image of motherhood (this is the point of my unfinished book by the way), which has made us a generation of parents that over-protects and over-provides. Our children, in turn, are under pressure to be the perfect children, to have dabbled in all the right extracurricular activities, to get the best scores, to be popular and social and yet independent and self-possessed. To go to the right school, the one most likely to help you get into the next right school. This all horrifies me, having grown up in a generation that did not study for SATs – they were aptitude tests, after all – and I’m fatigued just thinking about what’s ahead for the girls as they grow into young women hoping to find their place in the world.

(And yet I hope is that they will do well – in school and in life – so that they’ll have more choices when it comes to finding their place in this world.)

There is the adage, one I’ve subscribed to in theory but perhaps not in practice, that if you’re going to do something, do it well or not at all. The inclination to cross every t and dot every i and put your best work forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing – until it becomes compulsive and restrictive. Sometimes it’s just fine to be good enough, to let them be the messy, dreamy kids that they are, and to be the mother who does her best while juggling a lot, which sometimes means raising my voice or losing my temper. Besides, sometimes it just feels good to holler.


Oct 5 2010

Yeah, baby.

Buddy-roo pressed her pinky finger against her lip, “Preparation H!”

She and Short-pants doubled over laughing. They didn’t really understand the joke; you can’t find this product in France, neither of their tender bottoms have ever required treatment for hemorrhoids. But they giggled out loud because they know that it’s supposed to be funny; no doubt when they watched Goldmember with their father, this joke must have cracked him up.

What to do? Laugh at loud or react in a way that would hopefully discourage them from repeating this and any other lines they’ve learned from watching the film. I turned sharply toward De-facto and gave him the look. “What?” he said, “It’s a funny movie.” I guess there are worse films for them to see, but Goldmember is not first among the DVDs I would have selected for family viewing pleasure.

But what is a suitable video? A Disney film in which the mother deer (or bear) dies in the first scene? A film in which an elephant, who’s mother is also killed in the first scene, returns to the jungle to civilize the wild animals so that they live like humans? Barbie and her princesses, or Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or any of those films where the female character waits helplessly for a strong, handsome man to save her from peril and make things right? (Shrek attempts to dispel this stereotype, but it has to go up against an entire library of princesses waiting to be rescued.)

A greater concern – to me – is the violence that is has become an habitual part of Hollywood films. At least the relatively small amount of violence in the Austin Powers‘ films is so campy that it couldn’t possibly be a shock to a generation of movie-viewers accustomed to life-like murders, realistic Hollywood shoot-outs and car chases with miles of carnage left behind. Except that we don’t watch those gun-toting crash-bang films with our kids; Short-pants and Buddy-roo are plunked in front of the feminist-irritating Disney favorites, or more often, they watch the real classics. Last Saturday, De-facto and I got to sleep in while the girls watched Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau in Hello Dolly. Or the favorite electronic babysitter option: The Electric Company.

As much as we try to protect our children from violence, our world is violent and they manage see its violent images. If we happen to watch the television news while they’re in the room, it’s in front of them. If they look through the news magazines that end up in the bathroom, there are photographs of war and brutality. We try to filter the media that they take in, but we can’t control it every inch of it.

Anyway, Austin Powers is a comedy.

Except there’s a lot of sexual innuendo. It’s all silly slapstick and sophomoric humor. Is it still too much mojo for them? If I have to choose between letting my girls watch a film that was violent or sexual, I’ll choose the latter. Sexual content I can explain. I can put it in context. I can address their questions. But violence? How do you ever make that acceptable?

Which begs the question how do I want my daughters to learn about sex? Do I want it to be a clinical discussion? Should there be dramatic overtones of true love and finding the one? Will it come from Lady Gaga? Is Austin Powers such a horrible introduction to the world of sex? Sure, the woman are objectified (especially the Japanese twins), but then, so are the men. Everyone is having a good laugh. There are no sexual victims. All the main characters in the film think that sex is good and pleasurable. If anything, it’s the Holy Grail.

For now, I think it’s it all going over their heads anyway. It appears that the 20 back-to-back euphemisms for male genitalia haven’t registered with them (yet).

Yesterday, Buddy-roo did not want to leave the park after school. Then she complained all the way home. Her life is too hard. She misses her old school. Why does she have so much homework? Why does she have to go to school at all? Why can’t she stay at home? Why don’t I home-school her? Unhappy with each of my responses, she stormed ahead of us; I found her pouting in front of the front door to our building. She cried all the way up the four flights of stairs. Once in the apartment, things did not improve. I could see the evening spiraling down, something much harder to manage when I’m flying solo, which is the case this week because De-facto is out of town on business. In fact, he’s in Holland, where they speak freaky deaky Dutch (not far from Belgium, the home of Goldmember himself).

“Any and all kids who eat their dinner and do their homework without complaining, whining or dilly-dallying get to watch a movie before bedtime,” I pronounced. And then, don’t ask me why, I added, “the movie of your choice.”

Goldmember?” both of them, in unison.

I backed myself into this one. There was nowhere to go. “No whining? No fussing? None of this, wait let me do something else first?”

Heads nodded solemnly. Then, in tandem, their elbows folded in order to place their pinkies on their bottom lips. How could I say no?

The mood changed instantly. Dinner was executed without a hitch. It took over an hour for Buddy-roo to do homework, but she stayed at the table and slogged through it. It wasn’t easy-peazy, lemon-squeazy, though she smugly used this phrase, borrowed from the film, after writing out a few of her lesser-challenging spelling words.

Homework completed. Jams on and teeth brushed. We three curled up on the couch with Austin and his cast of characters. I can’t say I wasn’t cringing, I kept the remote in hand to mute the sound and distract the girls with a question about the plot when I couldn’t stand the puns any longer. Then at nine o’clock, about halfway through the film, we pressed pause (as agreed) and they ran upstairs without prompting (as agreed) and slipped into bed without any fuss.

And all I can say is Yeah, baby.


Jun 11 2010

India Dreaming

The women sat in a circle on the floor – actually the roof, the meeting took place on the flat rooftop of someone’s house. The cement walls of the balcony painted lime green, adjacent to a house of pumpkin orange, and each and every one of the women wrapped in a vibrant sari, the whole scene like a painter’s palate of the colors of India. They chanted together, a call and response that sounded almost like a prayer but was probably a pledge to honor the agreement of this community of about twenty women, all of whom have come together in the name of micro-credit.

They have all taken a loan, something equivalent to several hundred dollars each, and they meet every week to check in on how their small businesses are doing, and to make a collective weekly payment. The interest ends up being nearly 20% by the end of a year-long loan, which might seem egregious except for the fact that they have no collateral and there are money-lenders who charge much more. It is a way to get the money to start a small business – to buy a cow, buy supplies for a small restaurant, retool a cottage-industry toy-factory – and to produce cash-flow for their household that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to create.

We are in India, we came to lead a meeting for an organization, Unitus, an important innovator in the field of poverty reduction. Part of the meeting included this field visit, a chance for everyone who works at Unitus to see how important it is, the work they do, by visiting the microfinance institutions (MFIs) that make the loans, and also the clients who take them. Seeing it first hand makes you realize how important this work is, how what they’re doing really matters.

A few of the women stepped up to the front of the circle where the representative of the MFI was seated and paid the installment in cash; the tattered bills were counted out carefully as they sat and watched. After the payments were made, they grouped in smaller circles and had a chance to talk with the women about their loans, their businesses, what they need. They are grateful for the loans, but they wish could they could borrow more. They have dreams of other things they want to do.

After the meeting we were taken around the town – halfway between Bangalore and Mysore – and several of the women showed us where they live and work and answered more questions about the kind of expenses they have. We did the math in our heads. Even though these loans are helping to create growing businesses and in some cases even employment to others, these families are still living on just a few dollars a day, sometimes less. And this is not the worst of the poverty in India, or elsewhere.

This morning, for the first time in too long, I woke without an alarm. No kids to get ready for school. No plane to catch. No workshop to run. Not a single pending activity that required timely attention. I woke naturally, when my body was finished sleeping. This is a luxury.

Without the need to bound out of bed (or drag myself out of it), I lay still, listening to the waking world. The metal ceiling fan in our hotel room clips along, some creaky piece of it not quite fitting, ticking like a metronome. Bird-calls I do not recognize come from the garden outside our balcony. Even though we are 5 km outside of Mysore, you can still hear the muted, distant sounds of the chaotic traffic in the city – rattling old buses and the distinctive beeping of the tuc-tuc horns.

Then, the sound of a crowd, cheers that crescendo and fall, whistles and buzzers: the sound of the Lakers vs. the Celtics. De-facto turned on the TV to watch the NBA playoffs. It is morning here, the night game is on in Boston; he gets to watch it live. He is delirious.

Our hotel was once a palace, designated for guests of the king of this region. Yesterday we visited the Maharaja Palace, it put this one to shame. But still, when we arrived earlier this week, this white domed, grand building made for an impressive approach. Once inside, the sense of opulence wore off. Though it is a building that speaks of its own grandeur, it is aged now, a tired tribute to its more glorious past. Still, I like it. Were it taken over by the Four Seasons and restored to immaculate elegance, it would no doubt be a work of commercial art, but it would not have the funky historic charm that it has now, that makes you feel like you have actually stepped backwards into another era of India’s history. And because we are here off-season, and we were part of a large group, the price was very right. The group has left, but De-facto and I remain, taking advantage of such grand accommodation at a discounted rate (about this, he is also delirious) and resting, playing tourist. Mostly resting. Talking. Wondering about our future. Where should we be? Is France the right place for the girls? Aren’t we both a little restless? Where else could we go? Would we return to the states? Go someplace else exotic? Is it time for a new adventure?

We laugh and dream. On some level we believe, we know, we can go anywhere we want. We can choose where we want to live, and find a way to get there. We can travel; leaving our children in the care of someone else, just to come to India for a week. We can go shopping at the silk emporiums and come home with gifts that our girls will appreciate, but they don’t really need. Not because we are so very rich; we are not. But we have the means to do the things we dream of doing.

I keep thinking about those women, meeting on the rooftop, draped in their colorful fabrics, faces worn and weary from constant labor, but still somehow – amazingly – serene and beautiful. They work so hard and they don’t give up. My life is privileged compared to theirs, but if they would only loan me a little of their grace, I might appreciate it more.


Jun 4 2010

And the Winner is…

She’d written the short story, titled Danger in the Permarquette River, and re-copied it, twice, to hand it in for her school assignment. Then her teacher sent home a note about the Paris English Young Author’s Fiction Festival, encouraging students to submit their stories to the city-wide competition.
I typed it in to the computer, resisting any urge to change a word here or there, to improve the syntax. I made a few suggestions for edits, most of which she rejected – and I honored this because it was, after all, her story.
I followed carefully the explicit submission directions: Short-pants’ name shouldn’t appear on any page of the story; certain information had to be in the body of the email message to which the story was attached, the subject line of the email had to be titled in a specific way so the entry would be received and noted. All the details confirmed, I hit send, checked off that box and moved on to the next thing.

This is how I live, checking off a box and moving on to the next one. That particular week, just like this last one, was jammed with too many apparently important and urgent tasks. That was the same week as the Spelling Bee, competition that Short-pants was also keen to enter. (Incidentally, she graciously accepted the news when we learned that she did not advance to the final round.) I also remember that I was getting ready to go somewhere, which always adds an extra layer of stress. Preparing to go away, but also preparing to be gone; organizing things at home so they operate as they should in my absence. Then there’s the delicate management of personal appointments. De-facto always rolls his eyes when I have one of my “how am I going to get it all done?” meltdowns, pointing out to me I might be less pressed if I wasn’t also fitting in a haircut, a facial, wax and pedicure. He’ll never understand how, at my age, these things are not luxurious indulgences but rather critical acts of maintenance; an investment in my our future.

Though this week only the most essential grooming made the schedule; a haircut put me in good stead to go on yet another trip. I know I’m lucky to travel as I do, but sometimes I’m too overloaded to appreciate it. Saturday we go to India for a work assignment, after which De-facto and I will stay on for just a few days for some much needed R&R alone, as a couple.

When the email landed in my box informing me that Short-pants was a finalist in the young author’s writing competition, my inner peacock preened for her. The message said that she was among the finalists in her grade level, without indicating exactly which award. Did she win? Second place? One of who-knows-how-many honorable mentions? I don’t know. I just know she won something. I know that this awards program is a 2-hour engagement on a Friday evening, at rush hour, on the opposite side of the city, on the eve of a trip that I am barely ready to take and we leave at the crack of dawn the next day. Of course then Short-pants’ theater teacher sent home a note about how her rehearsal will run later on this very Friday, to prepare for their end-of-year spectacle. (Oh, June, the month of something every night: a performance, a recital, parent-teacher meeting, end-of-school-party.) Not to mention that Ricky and Lucy, who I haven’t seen in more than three weeks, invited us for a potluck dinner in our courtyard, all of this happening on the same Friday night. Tonight.

I suppose this isn’t the right spirit. I know you all don’t want another rant about how busy I am and what a pain in the ass it is to juggle everything. You all juggle a lot too. We all do.

But that’s the point. We’re all jugging a lot: our work, our families, our friends. We’re overloaded with information to ingest, there are more activities to engage with than ever before and who can fault any of us for trying to take advantage of all of them? In this day in age, especially with most mother and fathers multi-tasking, we’re all up to our ears. It makes the surprise element of this event seem more insulting than intriguing.

So the question is: do I arrange for Short-pants to get out of her rehearsal early, dash away with her, squeeze into the metro to get to the 16th arrondissement in time to watch a probably more than 2-hour ceremony honoring a bunch of children I’ve never met in my life, so that she can receive her award in person and have the experience of having a small crowd give her grand applause her as she approaches the podium? What if we schlep through all that only to hear them call out her name, in a string of others, as an honorable mention?

I remember when I was in school, receiving a letter to attend an awards ceremony like this, not knowing exactly what prize would be mine, arriving with a few anticipatory butterflies. What I found out later that night is that my parents knew all along what prize I was winning. They’d received a different letter, so they’d be sure to attend. I wish I could get that letter now. I fished for it, writing back to the organizers and explaining how we might not be able to attend. No hints were given to inspire our attendance. Perhaps that is a sign.

Every other parent who’s organizing their nutty schedule this Friday night is probably going through the same machinations. If we all knew the outcome, well, then only the win, place and show winners would probably turn up. So much for that grand applause.

So what do I do? Buck up and make the trek to the far western side of Paris so that Short-pants can accept her award, whatever it is, and cheerfully celebrate the success of other children while supporting the art of writing at the primary school level? Or do I blow it off, give myself a break and take it easy the night before we leave, calmly packing my valise, hanging out in the courtyard with my family and my neighbors, savoring this summer’s first bottle of rosé?

What would you do?


May 8 2010

My Mother’s Voice

My mother’s voice, all those years, was something to roll my eyes at.

It was a scolding plea to pick up my room, take my papers off the table, move my shoes from the hallway. It was the never-ending question: “How was school today?” Or an occasionally mystified, “what do you mean I didn’t buy the right kind?” The voice of a woman entirely incapable of differentiating Lee from Levis from Wrangler; the voice of a woman who never once in her life wore a pair of jeans.

My mother’s voice, those years, strong and clear in conference rooms and at speaker podiums – an articulate, educated, diplomatic voice. A voice that incited admiration and rarely faltered. A voice I didn’t disbelieve, but yet I couldn’t fully appreciate it. How could I? All listening is selective, especially when there are things we don’t want to hear.

My mother’s voice is now a voice inside my head: a memory, a childhood song, a compliment, a reprimand. It’s a beckoning call from the back porch. It’s a gentle whisper from the other room.

My mother’s voice. I hear it when I speak to my children. Please pick up your toys before the cleaner comes. Please clear your plates when you leave the table. You can’t go out without socks. Now my own voice, that of a mother’s, echoing the voice that once annoyed me as much as it soothed me.

Sometimes I hear my own voice, responding to a sweet prideful request to “watch me!” or “look at this!’ with a half-listening, half-present, “Yes, that’s great.” Once Short-pants said to me, “Mama, do you know what I mean? Are you listening?” Or Buddy-roo, who said to me yesterday, “I’d like you to close your computer, maman.” I am often caught in the act of being distracted and pretending to care: A wake-up call that my voice isn’t always the mothering voice I want to speak with.

Soon enough they will roll their eyes at me.

Now I know what it was that I heard in my mother’s voice: the voice of a woman trying to juggle a full life, a voice answering the call of work, of her colleagues, of her community and of her husband and her children, a voice calling out to herself amidst a grand chorus of voices, a cacophony of demanding, needing, wanting voices. A voice occasionally gasping for air. A voice I recognize differently now, now that it is also my own.


Mar 29 2010

End Pieces

Just as quickly as Buddy-roo’s black-eye ballooned into a swollen mess, it began to heal. For a few days, she looked like she’d rather fight than switch, but now there is only a faint bluish-yellow bruise that is about to vanish. Kids heal fast. At first she didn’t like all the fuss, but it soon became a badge of honor. She strutted around the school courtyard, and nobody messed with her.

De-facto pointed out a small discrepancy in my account of the accident: I wrote that buddy-roo “grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion.” This implies that the ground was stationary. He reminds me that the floor of the moving walkway is always moving in sync with the railing. So my reasoning (she stopped and the railing didn’t) can’t be the why she fell.

Listen, I’m a writer not an engineer. I saw her go down and it wasn’t pretty.

Short-pants and I passed that fateful ramp this afternoon when we made our way to the Conservatory. Long before we got to the ramp, she announced, “Mama, when we get to that dangerous part on the walkway, you shouldn’t run down it. I’ve decided from now on, we should always walk on it.”

Speaking of good decisions, you can imagine I was dying to hear what happened when Short-pants declined the invitation to join the Group.

“Well, I was nice about it,” she said. “I told them no, thank you.”

Apparently her answer was met with some resistance, but they were unable to persuade her to change her mind. I probed for more information, hoping to get a little more detail about who were these friends and what was their collective purpose. “It’s called the G-group,” she said, “for girls only. And anyway, I don’t want to be part of a group that doesn’t have boys in it. It’s not interesting enough.”

One of my good gal-friends, a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and award winning truffle-maker to boot), stopped by the apartment last week to say hello and was shocked to see the laundry rack in our living room, laden with clothes hung out to air dry.

She admitted that when she read about our broken dryer and how we weren’t going to replace it for environmental reasons, she thought, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” I’m happy to report, in case there are any other doubting readers out there, that yes, we continue to dry most of our clothes on the drying rack.

It should be noted, however, that just a month after the dryer broke, our washing machine died as well. (Oddly, we’ve had to replace every single major electrical appliance in our home in the last year.) We opted to purchase combo washer-dryer; that is to say it’s one machine in which you can wash the clothes, and then you change the dial and it dries them. So we do have a dryer now. Though use of this drying function has been designated for towels and jeans, only. Everything else goes on the rack. We’re trying, at least a little, to change our carbon footprint.

The weeks seems fuller than ever before. The constant motion of getting everybody everywhere with everything they need, while juggling a self-regenerating to do list leaves no time to rest, little time to grieve, just barely enough time to notice that spring has arrived here in Paris.

But it has, and that’s worth an Alleluia.


Mar 26 2010

The Group

On the way home from school, Short-pants told me about the group.

“I need to wear grown-up clothes tomorrow,” she announced, “because I’ve been asked to join a group.” Her enthusiasm was fierce; she was proud to have been invited. I asked her to tell me about the group. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just know who’s in it, and we’re supposed to wear grown-up clothes.”

After a moment of reflection, I decided to offer, carefully, an unsolicited opinion. I told her how I belong to a few different groups: teams I work with, professional associations, friends from school, from college, from Paris. I told her how groups are good for sharing common interests and getting support and having fun, as long as membership in them doesn’t require being rude to others to or excluding people in an unfair or mean-spirited way. Then I asked her, “Do you think this group is like that?”

“No Mama.”

“Well good, then,” I said. We started brainstorming what kind of grown-up outfit we might put together for her to wear that next day.

I guess this is the age when social groups become more clearly delineated. Instead of being part of a mass identity of the children, small clusters of like-minded, like-interested, informal clubs begin to form, not always with the best intention. I remember when I was a little bit older than Short-pants, a group of tough girls used to select a classmate at random, the tauntee-du-jour, and for any kind of reason they could invent, pick on her and lobby the other students to ignore her, or worse, to mock and ridicule her along with them. I lived in fear that I would become their target. I remember once they taunted a homely girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness, circling and kicking dirt at her in the playground. I didn’t participate, but I stood by and watched them jeer at her without saying a word or stepping in. Later that night, I felt like I should tell my mother about it, but I didn’t. I was too ashamed.

I still regret that.

In high school, I ran with a pretty congenial group. We might have been a clique, but I don’t believe we were intentionally cruel to anyone. (I say that, but my memory may be selective.) One of my friend’s parents owned a motel, and on graduation weekend they let the senior class take it over for a huge party. We barbecued, drank beer (the drinking age was 18 back then) and did our own fatiguing version of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, singing into beer bottles as if they were microphones. When someone suggested a midnight swim, I went to get my bathing suit and it was nowhere to be found. Someone loaned me another, but the next day I found mine crammed into the toilet of one of the furthest motel rooms. The perpetrator, we believed, was a girl from another group, a group made up of some of those same taunting girls from earlier in my childhood.

It hurt. It wasn’t the first time I was picked on or teased, but there was something violent – or violating – about it. I suppose it says something that I remember it now, decades later.

Maybe I should tell that story to Short-pants.

I’m stunned at the vitriol between groups – political groups – in the United States right now. I imagine this was the tenor of things during the civil rights movement, but I was shielded from that by my parents, good old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans, a breed that seems to be an endangered species these days. By the time I came of political age, things were tamer. The Democrats and Republicans disagreed, but the reaching across the aisle that Obama aspires to was not so extraordinary, a little quid-pro-quo-cross-parties was the natural order of being effective in Washington. I think it was like that. Wasn’t it?

Most of my friends supported the passage of the health care reform bill. I also know people who opposed it. But I cannot imagine any of them – on either side of the debate – lashing out at the other side with such venom and physical violence. Threatening the safety of the representatives who supported the bill? Vandalizing their homes and offices? Harassing their families? Bullying everyday citizens simply because they support Obama or the health care reform? I realize that my view of America is shaped by idealistic text-books from the 1970s, but this is not how I understood our democracy to operate. Was I fooled by those cheezy film-strips (beep) or has the typical American’s respect for the rule of law changed so dramatically in the nearly twenty years I’ve lived abroad? Since when is freedom of speech interpreted as the right to be downright rude, to insult, slander and cause physical damage to people in the other group, the ones who think differently. How can it be okay to hate and hurt like this? Not only can groups be mean. They can be dangerous.

The next morning, Short-pants crawled in beside me for her morning cuddle. We started to talk about her wardrobe and what she should select to wear to look grown-up. She wasn’t very responsive to my questions.

“There’s another thing,” she told me, “they said if I want to be in the group, I have to change my hair.” This would mean removing the broccoli-like ponytail she’s taken to wearing, the one that sticks straight up, just over her forehead.

“How to you feel about that?” I asked.

“Well, I like my hair this way.”

We went over her choices, listing the different ways she could respond: Change her hair and join, keep her hair and not join, keep her hair but ask if she could still join. Were there other choices? Maybe, she thought. She wanted some time to think about it.

Later, at breakfast, with a mouthful of pancakes, she told me her decision.
“I think I’m going to tell them thanks but I don’t want to be in the group after all.” She tugged on her vertical ponytail.

My daughter, it seems, has the makings of an Independent.