Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Jul 3 2010

Fiesta

My suitcase is stuffed with everything white. White pants and skirts. White T-shirts and tank tops. White jean jackets (I have two) and several pair of white sneakers. Where I’m going, it’s all about wearing white and just a splash of red. A red pañuelo around the neck and a red sash at the belt. This is the uniform of San Fermín.

The fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona has become my ritualized get-away with the girls. Not my two little girls, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, but two older girls, my wanderlusting girlfriends, otherwise known, during the coming week especially, as Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. (I’m called Whim of Iron.) Every year we meet up in Pamplona for one of the wildest parties in the world, the fiesta that Hemingway made famous in The Sun Also Rises.

I think the post I wrote last year on the eve of my departure, The Mom Also Rises, pretty much sums up perfectly why I go to Pamplona every year. If you’re ever going to dig into my archives, this is a good one to read.

I love the fiesta. I love the encierro, though I’ll never be among those who run with the bulls; I watch from a balcony above the route. I love the party that goes on day and night and the cast of characters I meet up with every year. I love the perpetual music in the streets, and the parade of peñas making their way toward the bullring every afternoon at 6:00. I love the corrida, for the drama of the bullfight as much as the sandwich after the third bull. And what’s not to love about the rear view of the matador and his cuadrilla?

What I love most about the fiesta is the feeling of being lost in the present moment. It is the perfect place to be here now, to move through the crowds in the street without any particular direction, to be drawn into a bar because the musicians who’ve taken it over call you in, and after a few laughs, some dancing and a cold caña, moving on to the next impromptu party around the next corner, at another bar, the back room of an eating club, in the park, at a long table set-up in the street, with strangers waiting outside the bullring – anywhere you turn there is a spirited party in progress. Pamplona, for me, means no duties and no to-do list, only the spontaneous delight of following my whim of iron, wherever it takes me.

(Photo Credit: The matador shot is by Jim Hollander, 2009. It’s worth noting that Jimmy’s published a beautiful book of his fiesta photographs, but for a long time has contemplated producing one called “Bull Butts” with more pictures like this. Don’t you think he should?)


Jul 3 2009

The Mom Also Rises

Every day I deal with consequences. My life is filled with them. Having little people to look after creates a profound sense of responsibility. There are always things to be done – dinner, laundry, getting them to school, coaxing them into the bath, writing notes to the teacher, buying the present for one of a dozen birthday parties – the list feels endless. But who else will help them accomplish these tasks? As much as I dream of being a slacker, knowing that those two creatures count on me makes it hard for me to be anything but responsible.

But not this week. This week, I get a break. This week, I am accountable to no one. I am responsible only for myself.

Each year, in early July, I join a couple of my favorite gal pals and make the trek to Spain, to Pamplona, for the Fiesta San Fermin. It’s become a tradition; this year will be my sixth consecutive appearance. The friend who introduced me to the bulls – we call her the Fiesta Nazi – hasn’t missed a fiesta in more than 25 years. Another friend, affectionately nicknamed Mother Theresa, has been going for 10 years. (My fiesta nickname, by the way, is Whim of Iron.)

De-facto is a total sport about letting me escape. He knows that I occasionally need a week of unencumbered spontaneity. And that’s exactly what I get in Pamplona.

No, I do not run with the bulls. Yes, I will go to the bullfight. No, it’s not cruel; it’s noble. Yes, I will be exhausted at the end of the week. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

During the fiesta, in any given moment, I may do whatever I please. I may wake up with my friends and watch the encierro – the running of the bulls – or I can hide my head under the pillow and sleep in. If I choose, I’ll go to eat greasy eggs and listen to jota ballads with the gang at the breakfast club, or I can disappear with a good friend and take a quiet walk to the plaza de toros to watch them sort the bulls for that afternoon’s bullfight. There are people I meet up with every year in Pamplona, and with them I can meander the streets, hopping from one bar to another, sampling tapas at each one, or I can skip the hot afternoon sun, find my way back to the apartment, shut the curtains and take a much-needed nap. I can stay out all night dancing, I can have “just one more drink,” or I can navigate the smelly, crowded streets and make my way home early.

I don’t need to call anyone. I don’t need to negotiate when I go out or when I come home. I don’t need to stop the fun I’m having to pick up some small person or respond to a client request. I am about to go into joyful oblivion. And I can’t wait. It is the craziest, freest, most festive, tolerant, joyous party on earth. Hemingway described it famously:

The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during the fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.

It’s my week away. For one week, I am beholden to nobody – not even the Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. Even though I know there are people at home waiting for me, missing me, wondering about me. Even though I’ll be missing them like crazy. I will pretend, for my own amusement – at least for just this week – that there are no consequences.

That’s the fiesta.