Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

Each room gets worse before it gets better. Moving is not an orderly activity. One does not simply open a cardboard box, reinforce it with masking tape and begin pulling objects from shelves and drawers, calmly placing them in the carton. Maybe one does, a professional mover, or someone who doesn’t keep mementos, someone dutiful to the touch every piece of paper once rule. That one is not me. So many pieces of my life are squirreled away in the recesses of my closets and drawers; each time I open one to empty it out, I am arrested by memories.

That’s how the mess starts. In the back of my closet, I find two delicate gray silk bags, like large envelopes – once used, I think, for keeping lingerie or something. It’s not clear, their purpose. They belonged to my grandmother. I’ve never used them. I do not want to discard them, but I won’t need them immediately. Where to put them? I carry the two silk sacks around the apartment, thinking about where they might be stored, finally creating a purgatory pile for those objects that will not be taken to the garbage or the recycling bin, but nonetheless are not necessities for the next few months, the pack for later pile.boxes_behind_bed

Emptying the bathroom cupboards, I realize a shoe box would be useful for storing such purgatorial items. In our office, under the shelves behind the guest bed, I keep a stash of boxes, just like my mother kept boxes of every size in her backroom, so we were never in need when we wanted to wrap a present. To get to this stash I must move the bed. In the process, I find a wooden crate filled with all the love letters De-facto and I exchanged in our three-year long-distance relationship before he moved to Paris. I can’t resist the urge to peek inside. The letters and cards, compressed in the box for years, fall out onto the bed, a cascade of my own tiny handwriting and his chicken scribble, all our early love packed into folded pages. Like magnets, they pull me into the mood of those heady, hopeful days, when the mail was a main link between us. I reel myself back from this dangerous chute of nostalgia, folding the letter I started to open and pressing the box to close and clamp it shut.

Behind it, another box filled with the Short-pants and Buddy-roo‘s school papers. Their primary notebooks are easier to toss, though I am compelled to skim through them, just to review the work they have done, to see the evolution of their penmanship, the precision of the French teaching methodology. I flip through each one before putting it in the recycling pile. The notebooks from maternelle (ages three to five) are harder to part with. The French pre-school is brilliant; the combination of art and learning cleverly intertwined. Oversized notebooks with pages of drawings and paintings and crafted activities, evidence of the girls first efforts at expressing themselves, too precious to part with yet. As I push that box aside, I find another one stuffed with clothes I’d forgotten about. Of course these must be laid on the bed and sorted, and actually, that sweater will fit Buddy-roo, so I take it upstairs and…

Three hours later I return to the bathroom with a shoebox. But now every room on the apartment has a cupboard or a drawer thrown open, its contents spilled onto the floor in three piles: throw away, pack for now, or pack for later.

~ ~ ~

We’ve been restless for several years. In 2008, De-facto did a reconnaissance trip to Buenos Aires, to see if it would make sense for us to move there. He came back mildly enthusiastic, but then work picked up and other things happened and we let that idea slip away. We are not unhappy in Paris. Our life is convenient and convivial. The school is close. Our friends, many of love_paristhem parents at the same school, are the right mix of worldly but down-to-earth. We live in the heart of the city and my favorite restaurants, bars and shops are all footsteps away. There is nothing wrong with our life here.

Why would we leave, then? Because we can. We are not tethered to any particular geographical coordinates for our work. De-facto and I both travel away from Paris to exercise our profession, and any preparation for our assignments happens via email and virtual meetings. As much as we love Paris, we love to explore other places and we know the difference between traveling as a tourist and immersing yourself in another culture for an extended stay. We want the girls to acquire more languages, and not to be too rooted in one culture.

Mostly, though, we’re doing it because we need to change. We need to mix it up, put ourselves in a situation where we have to start anew. It will keep our brains from shrinking. Somebody asked us about leaving and De-facto and I responded almost simultaneously, “so we don’t get old.” Taking a risk and trying something new, forcing old patterns to break and new ones to form, this seems to us a reasonable antidote to getting grumpy and stodgy and fixed in our ways.

Paris, if you love her, is a hard city to leave. So maybe it’s not for good. Maybe it’s just a year to have an experience elsewhere. This is what we’ve told the school, so that the girls could be re-enrolled. This is what we’ve told our friends as they stare back at us, mystified. This is what we’ve told ourselves, to keep from being overwhelmed by the decision and its ensuing torrent of tasks and emotions: maybe it’s just a sabbatical from our beloved Paris.

~ ~ ~

The school was the linchpin. During our visit to Barcelona last March we visited the Lycée Francais and met with the headmistress. The girls eyes widened with every step at the large, well-equipped classrooms, the tennis courts, a climbing wall. Short-pants was ecstatic about the size and mood of the library. Buddy-roo’s class year was over-inscribed and her enrollment was not guaranteed, so we applied with our fingers crossed. Word came only at the very end of June that both girls had been accepted. As long as we knew they could have an easy transition – courses will be primarily in French, just like their old school, but they’ll also have classes in English, Spanish and Catalán – we had the green light to move to Barcelona.
barcelona_gate
The obvious next step: rent an apartment. De-facto and I went there in July, pounding the pavement around the school and further afield. We returned with several intriguing options, none of which have panned out. I wanted to go back and look again, and now that we have the lay of the land, our online apartment hunting has yielded a dozen more options. But Barcelona, like Paris, shuts down for the end of August. I couldn’t schedule enough appointments to make it worth the expensive trip. So we will arrive in Barcelona, just about a week from now, without a place to live.

That’s not the hardest part. A friend has loaned us her place for a week, and there are dozens of Air BnB apartments to rent for short term stays. What’s harder is the not knowing. Not knowing if we need furniture or not. Not knowing how long we might be in temporary digs. Not knowing what has to come now, what can come later. Moving is a tumultuous experience even if you can picture the next stop. The abstract quality of our destination is my greatest challenge.

~ ~ ~

There is a frenzy of things to do. Papers to put in order, closets to empty, boxes to pack, doctors appointments to get out of the way in order to arrive with a clean bill of health and a few months to find new practitioners. I take advantage of the familiar conveniences while I can: refilling prescriptions at my pharmacy, getting my watch repaired at the shop around the corner. Friends want to see us before we go for a last lunch or dinner, a goodbye drink, a final nightcap. From the moment I rise each day until I collapse in bed near midnight, I am occupied with the preparations for our departure.

Add to that a grand list of tasks to prepare for our arrival in Barcelona. Searching for additional apartments, touching base with agents and organizing visits for when we arrive, contacting a “fixer” who will help us set up bank accounts, phone and internet service once we finally have an dresser_unpackedaddress. Checking the website of the new school to see about starting time for new classes and what books and supplies we must purchase.

There was an agility exercise we used have to do in elementary school – for the Presidential Physical Fitness test – in which you had to jump from side to side, crossing lines of masking tape laid out in intervals on the gym floor. I feel like I’m stuck in that exercise right now, stepping sideways, back and forth, cleaning here, calling there, sorting here, packing there, testing my dexterity as I transition between our current home to the next.

At some point the frenzy is too much, the packing and the sorting and the errands, the emotional weight of the goodbyes and and good luck meet-ups with local friends. I survey the mess around me, wondering how I’ll ever get it all done. This is the kind of moment when I raise my eyes to the sky at the most organized woman I ever knew, and under my breath I ask my mother, what do I do?

I close my eyes to contain the tears – she never liked criers – but I can’t hold them. Tears of sadness about leaving. Tears of exhaustion from the full-on press of activity. Tears of release. And then I hear her voice, loud and clear, in my mind, or my imagination, wherever her voice resides.

“Try ironing.”

On a dining chair, a pile of clothes is mounting. Our Wednesday child-care helper used to do the ironing for me, but we let him go because we were gone most of the summer and now we’re leaving. I told myself if I had time, maybe I’d get to it. In this messy moment, cardboard and plastic strewn about the apartment, everything up in the air: no place to live and no idea how it’ll all get sorted, I pull out the ironing board, wrench it apart, plug in the iron and wait for it to steam to life. The clothes are from the winter stash, they’d gotten too musty to pack without washing them first. I take each item, a favorite dress of Short-pants, Buddy-roo’s layered skirt, De-facto’s plaid shirts – and one by one, I iron them. I dig into the drawers for for_just_a_momentdishtowels and pillowcases, and I iron them. I breath deeply in tandem with the iron as it releases its steam each time I set it upright. Then I press it down again, ironing back and forth to smooth out the wrinkles.

At the end, a pile of pressed items rests on the arm of the couch. I feel calmer. I’ve managed to draw some small measure of order out of the chaos, taken hold of the mess around me and found one small corner of things I could iron out, a stack of laundry I can be proud of, just before I put it in the pile to pack for later.

.

(Photo credit: The artwork, For just a moment, everything was calm, by Dan Walker.)


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


Aug 28 2011

Silent (but windy) Sunday


Aug 14 2011

The Cloning

I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.

In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.

I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.

I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.

“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”

Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.

~ ~ ~

“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.

Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.

Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.

Flat Stanley has been cloned.

Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.


Jul 31 2011

Shelving Matters

“But why did we need to redo our bathroom?” said Buddy-roo. She waved her hand like a game-show host’s assistant, pointing out all the clutter in our living room. Boxes of tiles, equipment yet to be installed – sinks, toilets, mirrors, a new towel heater – all sprawled across the floor. Our hallway is covered with dust from two different kinds of saws, each one set up on wide, sturdy sawhorses in the middle of our entry foyer. Pieces of particleboard, soon to be cupboards, are stacked against the wall making it nearly impassable.

I ran through the litany of complaints about our old bathrooms: the aging toilets, lack of counter space, lack of shelf space and inefficient storage – let alone the aesthetic problem of a sickening color of green tile not quite olive but not quite forest, the kind of green that neither soothes nor pleases the eye. Constructed in the early 1970s – and I doubt there was any renovation bestowed upon them before I started living here in the mid-90s – those bathrooms are owed a re-look.

There isn’t a renovation project that’s easy to live through, but perhaps kitchens and bathrooms – the two most plumbing intensive rooms in a home – are the most difficult to endure, which is why we scheduled the work to be done in July while we were out of town. But an appointment in Paris required our presence and we also felt the need for a few consecutive days of full-time internet connection to keep up with our on-line lives, so we trekked back to the city for a mid-summer’s pause in our what is usually a nearly-full-summer vacation.

Not that it hurt to be home to peek at the work in progress and surely there were a few decisions better made after seeing things first hand. There is the clear promise of a 4-star hotel bathroom in the making, but still much work ahead before anyone can luxuriate in that bathtub.

Maybe one of you readers could kindly enlighten me as to why De-facto would distract our contractor by asking for his attention on another project, at a little studio we rent out, in the middle of our double bathroom renovation? That “little” job turned out to be much more complicated than the few days originally forecast. Since our contractor is meticulous – and for this I hired him – that small-job-gone-awry put him at least a week behind on our bathrooms. You might imagine that his keen attention to detail might anyway contribute to what was already his propensity to run behind schedule. De-facto’s quick little job-on-the-side didn’t help.

Luckily our next-door neighbors were gone last week, so we borrowed their bathroom. But after 6 days of sawing and pounding and tile-dust, and knowing that there’s at least another week (or more) of it ahead, we’d had enough of cohabiting with the renovation. Our summer-in-the-city days were numbered. It’d be much easier to get out of town, though we picked one of the most heavily trafficked weekends in France to be on the road again.

Buddy-roo motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom. The contractor had been building customized shelves, fitting them around an old beam that cuts diagonally from the ceiling to the floor along one of the walls.

“Look at all the shelves,” she said.

“Yes,” I marveled with her. The shelves glistened like jewels, each cubbyhole waiting to harbor my creams and powders.

“Do I get a shelf of my own?”

I had considered, in the design, that the girls might grow into teenagers in this bathroom, requiring a designated place to store their own toiletries. I nodded my head.

“Which one?” she asked, with the same enthusiasm she exhibits on Christmas morning.

“We have to see, when it’s all done, what makes sense.”

“What about Papa?” she asked, “Does he get a shelf?”

I eyed the cardboard, plastic pieces and old plaster piled in the bathtub, the electrical wires jutting out of the wall, the open pipes waiting for fixtures to be attached.

“Over there,” I pointed to the small triangular shelf in the corner, at the furthest point from where the sink will be, just behind the door.

“That little one?” she said.

I nodded. I waved my hand around the room, like Vanna White, showcasing all the work that was taking longer than expected.

“Yes,” she said, conspiratorially, “That’ll be just right.”


Jul 19 2011

Under the Rim

I should know better than to call them with that Auntie-Em voice, the one that telegraphs something menacing like you’re in trouble or there’s a job for you ahead. If I could just get-a-hold of myself before hollering, “Girls!” and strategize for a moment, pretend I’m offering them a surprise candy, turn my voice to an entirely different timbre. But I’m too often in a hurry, or impatient; my beckoning call gives away it’s I’ve-got-something-for-you-to-do reason.

They come nonetheless, two blond heads bobbing into the kitchen. Short-pants and Buddy-roo are well behaved and though sometimes they’ll dilly-dally and stretch things to the breaking point, they do know when to tow the line.

“Snack-time?” says Short-pants.

“In a moment,” I say, “but first, the toilets.”

I brace myself for their protests, which come at me like a squall. I do not relent. At home in Paris, we are lucky to have a house cleaner who comes weekly and scrubs our toilets, dusts (sort of), vacuums and changes the sheets on the beds. He is unappreciated by the girls; they only understand that his coming means they have to pick up their belongings. This is counter-intuitive to them, they do not yet distinguish between picking up and cleaning. I do understand their sentiment. When I was their age it was beyond me why we had to neaten up before the cleaning woman came. This is a classic passing-of-the-baton moment: you know you’ve become your mother when you hear yourself saying exactly the same things she said to you.

But I respect our cleaner for doing the work I’d prefer not to do, and I do not want to aggravate him by leaving 2-dozen pieces of plastic strewn about Buddy-roo’s floor for him to organize prior to running the vacuum. He comes for only three hours a week; it could take a good chunk of that time just to pick up the books Short-pants has left piled on her floor – I need him to be cleaning, not tidying.

This is my mother channeling herself through me. She had precise ideas about how to treat the people who helped keep our house in order. She was also the queen of cleaning-with-the-cleaning-woman. I have vivid memories of her, in her bathrobe, lifting and turning mattresses in tandem with Georgia, a woman of robust enthusiasm and loyalty, our house-cleaner for many years. Then there’d be that May Saturday when she’d invite Georgia for an extra day of work, and direct all of us to help her wash all the windows of our house. I can still picture my brother, in his long, angry, early-70’s haircut, cursing under his breath as he pulled the storm windows off for the summer season and carried them to the basement while my sister and I, following Georgia’s orders, faced each other with the window between us, squeaking away at each pane with an old strip of white cotton bedsheet.

One summer when I was in high school, my sister’s boyfriend hired me to be his house-cleaner. He lived with two other college-aged guys, the three of them had college-aged-guy living habits. Every week I found myself confronted with their mess of worn clothes, dirty underwear, shoes, books and open magazines, record albums and empty bottles and overflowing ash-trays. It took me a good hour-and-a-half to get their house uncluttered enough to start the real cleaning. Then I knew what my mother meant.

My friend the Fiesta Nazi rents out her studio apartment each year while she winters in a warmer climate, and her consistent complaint upon returning to her Paris home each spring is the condition of her toilet. Her renters are usually students or young adventurers, in their early twenties, and it seems that none of them have learned how to properly clean a bathroom. This made me realize that because we have a weekly cleaner at home, my girls could grow up to be just like her clueless, irresponsible renters. So I set out to make Short-pants and Buddy-roo learn how to scrub the bowl. They may not have to do it at home. But here at the country house, it’s their job.

I accompany one daughter, then the other, and remind them what to do. Lift up the seat first. Make sure the toilet’s been flushed. Pour in the cleanser. Pick up the brush. Buddy-roo slides the brush tentatively along the side of the bowl, barely stirring up any bubbles from the soap we’ve added. I take her hand, like a golf pro correcting the student’s grip, and guide her to use a little more pressure and to move it all around the bowl and then under the rim.

“Use a little elbow grease,” I tell her.

She looks at her elbow, and then up at me, quizzically.

“It means work harder at it,” I say.

She scrubs harder.

“And close your mouth!” My reminder comes just in time, seconds before her vigorous scrubbing splashes a bit of the soapy water up and it lands on her chin.

The country house is a perfect place for this activity; as the primary sweeper, vacuumer and cleaner, I’m happy for the extra hands. But the main thing is I don’t want them to grow up being total princess slackers. I think our generation of parents makes the mistake of doing too much for our kids, or letting too much be done for them. Our indulgence leads to their indolence. I’m counting on the fact that it will come in handy, even in their very privileged lives, to be able to roll up their sleeves, put the brush in the bowl and – with a little bit of elbow grease – clean under the rim.


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 17 2009

Dishwasher Dilemma

Sometimes De-facto and I work together, professionally.

I’m wary about this because living, loving, and parenting together are hard enough. Adding the vocational dimension is tricky; it could put us over the 24/7 edge. He always rolls his eyes when I say this, but I think it’s important: We each need our own time and place in the sun. And honestly, we’d drive each other crazy if our careers were absolutely inextricable.

But on those occasions when we do get to team up, we do pretty well. We pass the baton back and forth and mix things up a little with our different styles. My favorite part is when he gives his little spiel about patterned thinking. It starts out something like this:

“Humans are actually hard-wired to locate, create, and sustain patterns. It’s part of our survival. The brain is a pattern-making machine.”

He goes on to support this with a little bit of scientific research, a few diagrams of the human brain and a little exercise that people always flub up because they get too caught in a pattern they think they see but isn’t really there. It’s a good set-up for raising awareness about the assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis, in order to free them up to break patterns and try to be a bit more creative. While he’s making his case for breaking patterns, he reminds us why we have them to begin with:

“The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines – cognitive scientists call these mental models – to make us more effective and efficient.”

This is the part where I usually have to leave the room or look down at the floor so I don’t laugh out loud what I’m thinking in that moment which is, “You mean all human brains except for yours.”

Ours is a relatively egalitarian household. We share chores, more or less in equal measure. We never actually sat down and divided the jobs, they just ended up falling into the hands of the one who seemed to care the most or had the aptitude for a particular task. I deal with the administration and paperwork. He is Vice-President of renting-a-car. Most mornings I get the kids up and dressed and fed. He makes the morning walk with them to school. I load the dishwasher, and he unloads it. I manage the laundry, because I’m particular about which clothes go in the dryer and which don’t. He does the grocery shopping, because he hates to waste money and prefers to buy in bulk from the The Ed, the cheap grocery store that I find too exasperating to even enter. He enjoys negotiating the best deal for produce in at the street market. While I find open markets a romantic place to look and stroll, my experience of shopping at them is agonizing.

Not that our assignments are written in indelible ink. Sometimes I pick up groceries or walk the girls to school. Sometimes he does a piece of household admin or loads the dishwasher with dirty dishes.
dishwasher
The loading of this appliance, I’ve found, can be satisfying. I relish getting in as many dishes as possible, whilst maintaining optimum cleaning capacity. This equilibrium is essential. Too few dishes haphazardly placed on the racks, and you run an inefficient wash, wasting money and energy. Too many dishes and they don’t get really clean, you have to leave them in for a second wash or do them by hand. You have to strike the right balance.

It’s not rocket science. Plates down below, from the side to center, big dinner and then smaller luncheon plates, followed by saucers. Coffee pot and tall glasses on the tall spokes. Pots and pans or big bowls strategically placed around these mainstays. On the top rack, café-au-lait bowls tucked under the fold-down flap on the side, allowing for shallower accessory bowls and short glasses to rest on top of them. Cups, mugs and other glasses filling up the rest of the upper rack. And in all cases, load from back to front.

Listen, I’m no neatnik. Open my closets and things fall out. I have photo albums from 2003 that haven’t been assembled. My life is filled with colorful piles and partially-finished, imaginative messes; I like a certain amount of organized disarray around me. But when it comes to the dishwasher, well, I figure my strategy saves money and helps the environment. (Honestly, I’ve reconfigured one of his loads and cleared half the space, putting off a dishwasher run for 24-hours.) But when De-facto loads the dishwasher, it makes no sense whatsoever. He has a pattern, I suppose, but it’s a rather pathetic one.

Well, you may say, his job isn’t to load the dishes, it’s to unload. But wouldn’t you think that after years of unloading a dishwasher that’s so precisely arranged, he might notice some kind of a pattern? We’ve lived together for nearly ten years. He’s probably unloaded that dishwasher at least 2,000 but probably more like 3,000 times. Wouldn’t your pattern-recognition machine pick up something?