Jul 5 2012

All that Bull

As promised, just after eleven o’clock, they arrived. I heard the signature barking-dog alert, and looked up from my barstool to see a round, blue bull pedaling by on a vélib’, the rentable bicycles in Paris. A few moments later, the Fiesta Nazi arrived with the robust bull at her side, and a small crew from Kukuxumusu, who’d come to film her because she’s been designated as this year’s Guiri del Año of San Fermĺn. It’s been thirty years that she’s been going to Pamplona, and it’s fitting that this honor, bestowed each year upon a favorite fiesta foreigner would go to her.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love, all donning red pañuelos, came to the café, along with a gang of other friends, to await their arrival. The Fiesta Nazi habitually avoids publicity, so assembling a familiar crowd at the bar helped keep it silly rather than serious. Not that a Disney-character-styled blue bull is that serious, but we showed up to make it feel like a party rather than an interview. The girls loved the bull, aka Mister Testis, and hugged him him like a long lost friend. When he finally de-costumed, they took turns trying on his head and poking each other with his horns.

De-facto had some errands to run, but showed up after the interview to say hello. He could not contain his curiosity about the bull costume, which was crumpled on the floor like a passed-out drunk after an all-night binge. He wanted to try it on. The Kukuxumusu guys did not protest at all, helping him slip his long skinny legs into the suit that was measured for someone not quite so tall as he, and turning him and zipping him up into the costume.

I looked on with admiration as De-facto appropriated the costume and ran out of the café to interact with people in the street. He has never been to the fiesta San Fermĺn. It has always been my annual week-away-with-my-girlfriends, and when I first started going, I needed that week away. Now it is not as critical to my sanity but the rituals have been put in place and he does not complain about the arrangements I make to go there. In recent years, I have more than hinted that he should come to Pamplona, too, even if just for a few days. So far, he’s opted to let it be mine, apart from the family. That he can leave the fiesta to me, and yet celebrate some of its foolishness when it happens to come close to home; this is just another reason to appreciate his role as my partner, and the long leash that I enjoy.

Buddy-roo, however, wasn’t delighted as I was by his willingness to try out the bull’s suit for a jaunt in the neighborhood. She burst into angry tears.

“No Papa, don’t!” She screeched at him and stomped her feet. “You look ridiculous!”

De-facto bolted out into the street, skipping down the sidewalk in the bulky blue suit, nodding at strangers, enchanting the passers-by who gawked and laughed, and taunting those who pretended not to notice that there was a foolish blue bull dancing down the street toward them.

~ ~ ~

The TGV from Paris to Hendaye is one of my favorite train trips. It’s the first leg of the voyage to Pamplona, slicing through the French countryside to the Spanish border. The days leading up to get on this train are never easy, I wind myself up getting the family packed and on the road to the country house, and my compulsion to get everything else in my life in order before I go doesn’t help. But the moment that my suitcases are stowed in the luggage rack, and I plop down in the crushed-velvet seat and heave a huge sigh of relief, then I know there’s only fun and fiesta ahead.

It’s always good to start the five hour trip with a nap, but eventually the legs need a stretching and there really isn’t any place to walk other than to the bar car. The train is divided into two sections, Zen and Zap; when you book your ticket you choose an ambiance. The Fiesta Nazi and I usually book a seat in Zen, because you can always get a little Zap by strolling to the bar car, though I must say we found it to be a bit too quiet for our mood. A little rosé later, we persuaded the barman to plug my iPod into the speaker on the bar, and raised the volume on a playlist of our Pamplona favorites. There were a few other people in the bar car, pretending not to notice that we had started dancing. Soon they left, but we kept dancing, because the music is the kind of music that compels you to dance and we were, after all, ramping up to go to one of the best dance parties in the world.

The barmen, amused by our impromptu party but unwilling to participate, went about their business cashing out the register, cleaning and clearing the bar of its inventory as we approached the last stop. We raised the volume and kept on dancing. This was of great interest to two pre-teenaged girls who’d come to the bar car for a soda and found instead a disco. They stood at a distance, watching us as if were from another planet. I danced my way over to them.

“This is what joy looks like,” I said to them.

It was then, dancing in the TGV bar car, the Fiesta Nazi and I turning and twisting and laughing at each other and not even caring what anybody thought, that I understood exactly why De-facto is so accommodating about my trips to to Pamplona. He knows that something happens to me while I’m dancing like a fool with my fiesta friends, something that makes me feel especially alive. He knows I need it, and he knows why. He gets it, and I will never take that for granted.

Moments later, the two girls returned to the bar car, holding their smart phones as if to be texting, but I suspected they were snapping photos or videos. I danced back over to where they were standing, which was as far away from us as possible.

“You can take all the photos you want,” I said, “but promise me that when you’re my age – and I’m fifty – you’ll let yourself dance in a train someday, just like this.”

They nodded their heads, agreeing. What else could they do?

~ ~ ~

Such foolishness will continue for days. In Pamplona, at noon on the sixth of July, the rocket will go off and church bells will ring and champagne corks will pop and the days and nights of the next week will be filled with more laughter and foolishness than most people get in a whole year. There is joy to be had – at the fiesta it’s called alegria – and nobody gives it to you or does it for you, and it probably won’t happen unless you’re willing to be foolish. And much to Buddy-roo’s chagrin, both her parents are absolutely willing, and that’s no bull.


May 12 2012

There and Back

There it was, just at the moment I’d started to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn, the discreet yellow arrow pointing the way. If the trail is in an open field, scaling a steep hill or snaking through a forest, it’s hard to lose it. When the Camino winds through a town – even a tiny pueblo – the arrows can be tricky to spot. You have to pay attention. Not that much could go wrong. Some local would spot you – pilgrims, with their fat backpacks, wide-brimmed hats and walking sticks, stand out – and would gently correct your course. If not, enough time would pass without a yellow arrow or one of the blue-and-yellow shells marking the trail, and you’d retrace your steps easily. The Camino is well indicated. No compass required.

Before leaving, the Fiesta Nazi gave me a copy of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (a.k.a. Dear Sugar), a memoir about a 3-month trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. This was a journey. She hiked from the southern part of California to the Washington state border, alone, carrying on her back a tent, sleeping bag, water filters, cooking gear, food rations and water. Her pack, much more than double what mine weighed. She had to make camp every night and cook for herself, and her trail was truly in the wild, with bears and rattlesnakes, and not so plentifully marked, often requiring mountaineering skills to determine if she was on course or not. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a luxury tour in comparison.

There was some irony in the presentation of the book, an inch-plus-thick hard cover volume (with a heartfelt inscription) handed over just as she was about to inspect the clothing and travel items I’d laid out on my bed. I had two long-sleeved shirts ready to pack. “Only one,” she said. I held up my nightgown. “Sleep in your clothes.” I tried to hide the travel-sized canister of hairstyling mousse and a half filled tub of sticky hair gel under a pile of socks, but she discovered them. “Can’t you get by with only one of these?”

She is, I might add, a card carrying member of Overpackers Anonymous; when we travel together each summer to Pamplona, her suitcase is packed until the seams stretch. But she is also a seasoned trekker, and along with another friend who guides and is no stranger to the Camino, gave me invaluable counsel to go as light as possible. I think that even with a full load of water (I could carry 3 liters) and any fruit or lunch I carried, I never had more than 9 kilos on my back. I managed to wear every piece of clothing I took, and never once wished for something I hadn’t brought.

Even if the Camino isn’t roughing it like hiking in the wilderness, it’s not without rigor. The first leg, a 25K trek over one of the Pyrenees mountains, is an early test. Climbing it is hard on the heels, the descent taxes the toes. About 6K of this I navigated in the rain, but I didn’t even mind. Already in the rhythm of one foot then another, I watched the sky quench the ground’s thirst, stepping over thick black slugs and keeping a lookout for little yellow arrows.

I learned when to start off each morning, not so early as to be with the throngs of up-and-out eager hikers, but not so late that I’d lose those precious cool morning hours. Around 8:30, I’d fall in with the slow trickle of pilgrims, moving along one-by-one or two-by-two. I’d find myself happily alone on the trail for long stretches, until I might come upon a couple of hikers, or else I’d be passed by someone with a faster gait than I, and we’d exchange a quick, friendly greeting, “Buen Camino!” and keep on at our own pace.

Once in a while it feels right to stay in step with a fellow pilgrim. The conversation usually includes banal but anchoring facts: Where are you from? Where did you start the Camino? How far will you go? Sometimes we’d divulge the reasons we’d come to do the Camino: the expectations, reflections, questions and decisions we carry with us as we walk. After a while, a stop under a shady tree for a rest, a snack, a drink of water, and one of us would move on, alone, without apology. There is a constant weaving in and out of being alone and having company, of solitude and camaraderie.

In the evenings I’d hunt down a café-bar on a small side street for a beer and a bite. If I wanted a little company, I knew I could stroll to the main square and spot the faces of pilgrims I’d passed or whom I’d chatted with briefly at a village fountain while replenishing our water bottles. I didn’t know most of their names, but after several days I started to recognize the cast of characters now so familiar and friendly, my pilgrim family. There’d be a sense of relief to see them, like oh good, you made it today, too. Everyone is rooting for you. And you for them, too.

We’d chat about the terrain, the scenery, the heat, our sore feet and other body parts not accustomed to 20+ kilometers a day for successive days. It was good to have the companionship, and also good to leave the laughing crowd behind and stroll to my pensione, usually a modest place, luxurious because it had its own bathroom (I haven’t opted for the dormitory-styled albergues, yet). I’d take the things I’d hand-washed and hung to dry in the late afternoon sun on my matchbook-sized balcony, and hum to myself as I prepared my pack for the next day, a day that, like the one before and the one to follow, had only one errand: to walk from one place to another. And even then, I could walk as slow or fast as I pleased, and I could change the location of my stopping off point at any moment along the way.

After five days and 115 kilometers, I’d probably just found my stride on the Camino, but I was preparing to leave it. All week I’d been answering the same questions, how I’d started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, how I hoped to do the entire Camino in several chunks this spring and next fall, how this first leg would last only a week, to Estella, after which I would return home to Paris for Short-pants‘ orchestra performance. I heard myself say this, again and again, noting that it was without resignation, and possibly even with a bit of pride, that I announced this priority.

“Is your daughter renown?” asked one hiker, surprised that I would interrupt my walk on the Camino to attend a concert.

“To me she is,” I said.

A few years ago I probably would have made the same decision, but not without complaint. Now it feels like it’s just a natural part of my Camino, to return to Paris for Short-pants’ recital, and then to go back and pick up where I left off.

So I am home. My feet are sore, but only mildly blistered. My legs tired, but stronger. My dirty laundry, washed and hanging to dry. The long day of travel – by bus to train to plane – well worth it to be greeted with the enthusiastic hugs of Short-pants and Buddy-roo (and De-facto, too). The concert: the string ensemble played three lovely arrangements. Quick and sweet. Not-always-in-tune or in-time, but as far as I’m concerned, a renown performance.


May 5 2012

The Way

I woke up every hour, on the hour, all night long. It was the quintessential night-before-a-voyage restlessness, a low-grade worry that you’ll oversleep – that somehow the alarm you checked three times already won’t go off or else won’t wake you. Or just nerves, the kind that come before you’re about to do something you thought you wanted to do, until it was upon you and you wondered, what was I thinking? It could have been bit of residual jet-lag from last week’s trip to a different time zone. Excitement about the journey ahead. Or possibly it was the supermoon wreaking havoc with my sleep cycle.

I’d finished preparing my backpack – and weighing in at 7.3 kilos – at about 12:30 am. I shut off the lights and the glow from the moon flooded the living room like daylight. I tiptoed upstairs to check on the girls one last time. I’d heard Short-pants stirring earlier, I sensed she was still awake.

“Come, look at the moon!”

She popped up in bed – she’d been reading and probably had just turned off her light – and positioned herself to look out the skylight. The moon hung heavy above the rooftops of the city, any clouds that had covered it spread apart like a curtain on a stage. The official full moon is actually tonight, but last night’s dress-rehearsal was a good indication of its beauty and power.

We marveled at the big white disc, side-by-side, until the tiredness pulled her back to her pillow. I sat beside the bed and brushed her hair off her forehead. Her baby cheeks are gone, a young woman’s features are emerging. In the moonlight I could glimpse the face of her future.

We whispered back and forth – not that Buddy-roo, solidly asleep in the adjacent room, could have heard us. It’s just how you talk, in a whisper, when you’re up talking in the dark, in the middle of the night.

I thanked her for being my daughter. I thanked her for being so sweet and so lovely. I told her I appreciated her being so supportive of me going off to hike the Camino, how much that meant to me.

“You’ll have a good walk,” she said.

Later I slipped into my own bed, spooned myself around De-facto, putting my breathing in step with his. I tried to sleep but I could not still my thoughts. We’d talked about the possibility of him joining me on these first days of the camino. Why hadn’t we organized this? I’m not in the mood to be apart from him right now. What was I thinking?

Maybe it was that moon. Short-pants couldn’t sleep either. Or she came down to comfort me, sensing that I, too, wasn’t asleep. She crawled in to our bed and reached her long thin arm around me. Sandwiched between her and De-facto, I finally dozed, but only in short spurts. Her snoring didn’t help, but I didn’t want to escort her back to her room. I half hoped that Buddy-roo would come join us, too. I’ve never been an advocate of the family bed, but this once, I wouldn’t have minded.

This morning I stowed my heeled, fashion boots in the closet and laced up my sturdy, hopefully-broken-in-by-now hiking boots, hoisted my pack up on my back, but not before sneaking a peek at the sleeping bodies I was leaving behind and planting light kisses on dreaming foreheads. Why does it feel harder than usual, this time, to leave them?

I write this from a train, the TGV, slicing through the green landscape toward St. Jean Pied de Port, the gateway of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I will hike over a mountain into Navarra and my adventure will begin. Or maybe it already has.

Not sure how technically present I’ll be, probably not so much. But if the spirit moves me, I’ll send an occasional tweet from the #camino or I’ll post a few words or an image along the way. It’s only a week, this first leg, a chance to taste the route before I must go back to Paris for some family duties for a few days, and then I’ll return to the trail. It’ll be a bit more back-and-forth than I’d like, possibly interrupting the flow of my walking experience. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing, to be able to touch base with my people. It’s not the usual way to do the camino, or even the ideal way, but apparently it’s my way.

What was I thinking?


Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.


Nov 30 2011

Departure Stress

It wasn’t as bad as usual, this time. I even spent a few hours, the day before leaving, no less, wandering through the brocante on the rue de Bretagne with De-facto and the girls. We combed through the stalls of faux-antiques, furniture and junk in search of bookshelves and a dresser for the girls’ bedrooms, stopping midway for a chocolate chaud before hunting some more and heading home without a bookshelf or a chest-of-drawers, but instead with a desk for Buddy-roo that we hope will inspire her to do her homework.

Such a leisurely, familial break could have set me back, but it didn’t. I managed, somehow, to be packed and in bed with the (most of) the list checked-off by midnight. This is highly unusual. There were also fewer incidents of dragging my hands through my hair with the exasperated how will I ever get it all done? that too often accompanies my preparations for a journey. I’m a chronic sufferer of departure stress, but for this trip it was less torturous than usual.

Not that there was a total absence of angst. I lamented out loud, more than once, what was I thinking? I must have lost my sanity to agree to these projects that would take me away from Paris for such an extended period of time, and just before Christmas. I’ve been traveling too much, I moaned to De-facto, I can’t do it like this anymore.

Which is a load of crap, because I love to travel, it’s my drug of choice. I like to be on the road. I am most invigorated standing on a train platform with my valise beside me, or dragging my suitcase through a long airport corridor. Standing in a long queue at passport control can indeed be frustrating, but it can also breed a fierce anticipation of the adventures ahead. It’s all how you look at it. This trait I inherited from my mother, who in turn learned it from hers.

The problem is my obsession to put things doubly in order (also inherited). There’s the preparation to go away: packing, assembling supplies and the fairly mindless yet remarkably time-consuming task of booking tickets and checking-in on line. Then there’s the preparation to be gone for such a long time: paying bills, leaving notes and cash for the cleaner, anticipating babysitter coverage for the complicated moments in the girls’ schedules. It doesn’t help that De-facto has his own week-long trip during my three week absence, so a detailed calendar is required for the two babysitters who manage the girls days and nights when we’re both gone, including pick-up from two different birthday parties and dropping Buddy-roo with one of her friends while Short-pants goes to her music lesson. This is not just organization; it’s choreography.

I catch myself whinging about it and I think of the longing moments I spent on my back porch, growing up, dreaming of traveling in the manner that I do now, and I want to slap myself across the face and shout snap out of it! Because once I’m on the plane – or even before, once I’ve cleared security and I’m in duty-free land – and there’s nothing else to attend to and only the voyage ahead, I’m in a state of bliss. Two long-haul flights to get to New Zealand? No problem. That’s a full day of absolutely uninterruptable time, which can also be described as several movies, two New Yorkers, a novel and still plenty of sleep. I’ll wake up as the plane landed in a far-away place with the familiar tickle: who knows what adventures are ahead?

Guilt is part of it. Even though De-facto is super about taking on the kids and never once complained (to me) about the duration of this trip, I know what it’s like to be the sole parent at home – I do it for him when he travels. The girls don’t like it when I’m gone; their sweet pleading voices tug at me. Worse, I’m missing several important events-of-the-season: the school marché de Noël, the Christmas carol concert and Short-pants’ first viola recital. I know how it meant so much to me that my parents sat through all my orchestra and chorus performances. I feel a bit guilty to be missing theirs.

But guilt is part of parenting. A constant stream of media and societal messages harp on us about how to parent; it’s easy to get caught up in it. I’m always unwinding myself from this tangle, remembering that I don’t have to be the perfect parent, I just have to be a good one. Being true to myself is part of that recipe; mothering by example.

Now I am halfway around the world after 24 tranquil flight-hours of travel that followed 24 hours of frenzied preparation. I do miss my family, but without drama. I also know that this is an important part of me: to be on a trip with a grip, and I can’t deny it. Traveling may seem like a hassle when managing a life around kids, but if I didn’t get to do it at all, I’d shrivel up.

So I endure the pain of preparing to go away, and I find a reasonably sized receptacle in which to place my guilt about being gone. I focus not on the morning cuddles that I’m missing, but on those that will be all the more succulent when I return. And I hope that when it’s time for Short-pants and Buddy-roo to go out and grab the world, they’ll know just how to do it: without stress, without guilt, instead with a wide-angle view on the horizon, and all it has to offer.


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 5 2011

Precious Evenings

The summer is waning, but daylight still lingers long after dinner. At this point in the season – summer seems to turn a corner when August settles in – I think we appreciate the precious sunny evenings even more, knowing that they are numbered. The good news is there is still a month of summer left. The bad news: there’s only a month of summer left.

Seated at the dinner table, you can look out the back door of our country house and see the sun making its leisured descent to the horizon. Even after the meal and the dishes, it still has a good distance to cover; there’s a whole chapter of the day left. Last night after dinner, Short-pants kicked off her sandals and slipped into her knee-high green boots, grabbing a metal bowl from the cupboard and sprinting out to pick blackberries from the wild bushes that line our property while Buddy-roo made a beeline for the rusty old swing set. Some friends have joined us in the country for a few days, adding their three children to the mix; the gang of rowdy kids clamored around the yard with the gleeful, wild abandon that a summer night deserves. I think this might the moment when you feel most free, as a child: playing outside after dinner, like you’re stealing extra hours of fun that the winter won’t permit.

I remember how my brother, sister and I would cross the road after dinner to meet up with the five neighbor boys and play touch football in their front yard. Somehow these just-before-dusk football matches morphed into a game we called Spook. A musty old sleeping bag – a thick and weighty brown one with a flannel interior that had drawings of Davy Crockett and other frontier accessories – was central to this game, which was in essence a dressed-up form of tag. The person who was it (the Spook) had to carry or use the sleeping bag in some fashion while chasing the rest of us. My brother liked to run around the yard speaking in ye olde English, like Prince Valiant of the Sunday comic strip, alluring us into his grip. One of the neighbor boys would hold the sleeping bag with arms stretched wide open like the wings of a bat while running around the yard screeching a high-pitched alarm. Another would just hunch on all fours under the sleeping bag, waiting for us to come up and kick or taunt him and then he’d turn and grab us. We’d play Spook until it was too dark to see anymore.

The night might finish when, long after sunset, all eight of us would pile into their red convertible (before seat-belts were mandatory) and drive to town for ice cream cones. This was the same car we’d squeezed into earlier in the afternoon, when its white vinyl top would be latched to the windshield and the windows rolled up and shut tight to make us as hot as possible during the two-mile drive to the beach. We’d pour out of the car, jump down the thick, uneven cement steps to the lakefront, tossing our towels and shoes and T-shirts aside as we’d make the final sprint to plunge into the water. At night, that convertible top would be unlatched, folded and tucked behind the wide back seat, leaving us open to the night air, hair blowing across our faces as we’d cruise down the steep hill to town. The ice-cream stand had drive-thru service; what a joyful thing it was, being one or two cars back from the ordering window, fretting over maple-walnut or mint-chocolate-chip or just plain strawberry.

Last night as the sun finally set, De-facto lit a fire in the backyard while Short-pants led an expedition of the other children to forage in the forest for long narrow-ended sticks suitable for marshmallow toasting. Those that didn’t drop into the fire were sandwiched while steaming hot between two cookies with a slice of chocolate, melting into the perfect S’more, the time-tested summer’s eve treat. We let the sticky-fingered pack of children run wild into the night, forgiving any bedtime curfews usually imposed. When they finally wore themselves out (and nearly put themselves to bed) the adults stayed out in the back yard by the fire, finishing off a bottle of wine, staring up at the night sky, pondering Cassiopeia. What precious moments, these long carefree summer evenings, unburdened by tomorrow’s deadlines. Thank god there’s still a month of them ahead. And zut, there’s only a month of them left.


Jul 15 2011

Ages Away

We arrived on Day 5. The fiesta of San Fermin is not arranged by the day of the week; people don’t say Thursday or Monday; they speak of calendar days. It starts on Day 6 and ends at midnight on Day 14. This is how the bullfight tickets are numbered, it’s how we talk about when we’ve arrived and when we’ll depart. When you have a reservation at a restaurant, you have a compromiso for lunch at 2:30 on Day 11. That is, if you even dare to make a plan because inevitably the moment you must go in order to keep an appointment, you are in the middle of some other spontaneous moment you don’t want to leave.

Our habit is to arrive the day before the fiesta begins. We meet our landlord in a favorite bar across the street from our piso and buy him a drink. While sipping this first glass of rosado, we keep an eye out for a couple of strapping Aussies to entice to haul our bags up to the sixth floor in exchange for an invitation to return one morning later in the week to watch the encierro from our balcony. We’ve made a few friends that way, and given a few first-time-at-the-fiesta-boys a chance to see the run before they try. Most important, we’ve preserved our backs for the days of bar-standing and wild-dancing ahead.

There is a bullfight the night before the fiesta starts: the novillada for young matadors just coming of age. Our gang of early-arrivers gathers and greet and go to the bullring. It’s odd to see each other in regular colored clothing; it’s not until the next day at noon, during the opening Chupinazo, when the gun goes off that an entire city dressed in white ties red pañuelos around their necks, raises a glass or a bottle and the fiesta begins. The back balcony of the opening party we usually attend looks out at a cathedral with an enormous bell that rings only a few occasions during the year, this being one of them. After the noon gun, we race back to the back balcony to hear it toll. The sun is high in the sky, the Navarran hills peak in the distance, the fiesta has started but all of it is still before me: days of dance, drink and delight.

Later that evening, if we’re privileged enough to have a ticket to the bullfight, we migrate with the masses toward the corrida. There is kind of an electric buzz as everyone enters the arena, their white clothes still clean and pressed as hugs and kisses are passed around, warm salutations for those seated in the nearby seats, fiesta friends not seen since this time last year. The habitual questions: When did you arrive? When will you leave? Some people surprised that I can stay so long, until Day 12. Others, more seasoned, dismayed that I must leave before the fiesta is finished. Each year it pains me to leave early, but Short-pants celebrates her birthday on Day 13, and I refuse to dampen her party by not appearing. But now is not the time to think of my departure. I scan the bullring, a marvel of white and red, I think about the week ahead, a stretch of six days and nights with revelry and music and laughing still in front of me, it seems like plenty of time, the end of the fiesta for me is ages away.

The days of the fiesta pass. Some rituals are strictly observed and others spontaneously abandoned. Many fiesta friends, it seems, were celebrating milestone anniversaries this year. Mother Theresa, close friend and part of the cuadrilla I run with fêted her 10th year of attending the fiesta. A good friend was honored several times because this was his 50th consecutive year at San Fermín. Another counted this as his 40th anniversary. Then there were new friends who joined the debauchery this year for the first time, falling into our circle and marking (hopefully) the first of what might turn into their long run of fiestas.

Each day of the fiesta is intense, living a week’s worth of emotions in 24 hours, the highs and lows like a giant sine wave. I had moments of pure alegria: listening to those cathedral bells ring with friends on that back balcony after the opening gun; one afternoon happening upon a few people lying in the grass with their feet raised in the air against a fence, joining them and then, surprised to hear their voices raise together in Basque folksongs; dancing wildly until 3 am, or all the night and sleeping through breakfast; doubling in hysterics at jokes I didn’t even understand – something about the Bronze Age – just because the laughter of my friends was too contagious not to join them. The lows, of course, as crushing as the highs were exhilarating: a misunderstanding with a friend, a missed lunch invitation, a wave of fatigue so fierce that leaving the fun of the fiesta to sleep for a while is the only recourse.

Before I know it, it’s Day 12. At breakfast, I look up and down the table of friends and consider that soon I will have to leave them. All that nonsense about ages to go before my departure vanishes, in what feels like the single wave of a matador’s capote, the week has flashed by and I’m already saying my goodbyes. Polite nods to neighbors at the bullring, hugs across the bar to barmen who’ve served me well all week, tears and long embraces with friends I won’t see for another year. The sound of my suitcase wheels on the stones as I roll it down the street away from the fiesta while it rages behind me – this is the saddest ballad I sing every year.

A taxi ride to the frontier and a train ride to France is just long enough for two catnaps that allow a reasonably cheerful arrival. De-facto, who’s survived two weeks as a single parent, folds me into his arms. I get the run-and-hug-and-cling welcome from my daughters, who seem notably taller than when I saw them last. I return to the quiet of the country house, lingering morning cuddles in bed with the girls, the smell of a baking birthday cake in the oven. The boom-boom-boom of the fiesta seems far away, and it is, I suppose, until next year, when those six days will once again stretch ahead of me with all their promise, and the end of the fiesta will feel, once again, ages away.


Jul 3 2011

Get out of Town

It’s never easy. The last days before leaving for a trip always get ugly. No matter how I try to plan ahead, think ahead, and even pack ahead, there is no avoiding the inevitable frenzy and departure stress. Finishing up work projects so the hanging threads are at least minimized. Getting De-facto and the girls packed in the car and on their way to the country house. Setting in order the details of the household: bills paid, last minute errands, picking up dry cleaning, running by the post to drop some birthday cards in the mail, baskets of white clothes to be washed and ironed, suitcase packed. Get that last invoice out, answer those emails sulking in the bottom of the inbox. Stop by the bank to get cash for the trip, find a moment to shop for a new pair of cheap shoes for trudging through the gray silt of the upcoming Pamplona party. The list would not end, and the series of bullet-pointed colored Post-it notes plastered over the kitchen island seemed to multiply despite the fact that I plowed through the list industriously, barely stopping to eat or sleep, let alone to put my feet up.

There was a pedicure – a must before any summer trip and of course the visit to the beauty nurse to deal with the hair you don’t want, but then to the coiffeur to deal with the hair you do want. If only there’d been time for a facial. De-facto laughs at me when I run around at pre-voyage pace, stressed about my to-do list, on which a third of the items are beauty treatments, which he considers lavish. But I’m telling you this not a luxury; at my age, it’s called maintenance.

My usual start-of-summer departure stress was compounded this year by the necessary packing or purging of all bottles, boxes, tubes and personal toiletry items on every shelf of our bathroom and our w.c. We have arranged for both to be gutted and renovated during our absence, which meant a last-minute consultation with the contractor, some dashing about to pick up the new shower fixture and special-order lamps which meant I completely spaced out about a conference call I was supposed to join.

I’d turned the corner from frenzied to flakey.

But wait, there’s more: I knew this was not the ideal moment to wipe out my hard-drive and upgrade to a new operating system, however my recently-sluggish computer decided to freeze, upgrading this task from would-be-nice-if-you-get-to-it to the must-do-it-now status. The installation was more complicated than it should have been, requiring a manual reassembly of my document files, photos, browser preferences and email accounts. The good news is I had a fresh backup from which to work. The bad news: it still took hours. I was up restructuring my library files until three a.m.

It would help if I wasn’t so hell-bent on leaving home with everything in order. I cannot leave the house with perishable food in the fridge. The laundry needs to be put away and the tables cleared and chairs pushed in, the dishwasher emptied. I want beds made and the shoes put away, papers and books and things put away and out of sight. I like to leave the house in such a way that it’s a relief to come home. This adds a number of possibly superfluous tasks to my cluster of Post-it notes, but it does pay off. The return home is always smoother for this painful frenzy of preparation.

Keep your eye on the prize. This is the mantra I kept repeating to myself all week. Soon I’d be in the green of the hills of the Basque country at a favorite little hotel, sipping rosé and eating asparagus de Navarra. Just a few days later, I’ll be clinking champagne flutes in a room full of friends dressed in white (with a splash of red) in the middle of an entire city full of people dressed in white (with a splash of red) where for exactly one week I will be lost in the revelry and reverie that is the fiesta of San Fermín. The days ahead are days I dream of all year long: when I am beholden to nobody, when there is no end-of-day-deadline because I have to pick up the kids, no promises to keep, no paperwork to submit, no phone call to forget. These are the days spent wandering with purposeful abandon in an non-stop-impromptu parade with a posse of good friends, days where I am free to float, un-tethered and in the moment, subject only to my own whim of iron. These are the days I’ve been waiting for all year, and oh yes, they’re just ahead – if I can just get out of town.


Jun 23 2011

All that Noise

I stood at the curb, waving goodbye as Buddy-roo’s face pressed against the window in a crying grimace. That would be the very last image I’d ever have of her – this is what I told myself as I walked away – if they got in a car accident on their drive to or from the country house. This is a morbid thought, I know, but don’t we all have them occasionally? I think this is how you handle a suppressed fear – the one you know is irrational but somehow it’s still lurking there, just under the surface, polluting an otherwise optimistic view of life.

They were getting a late start, later than De-facto had hoped, and I knew that when they returned on Sunday he’d opt to leave even later to avoid the end-of-weekend traffic jam outside of Paris. But thinking of him driving by himself, so late at night, the two girls sleeping in the back, makes me just that little bit nervous – not enough to try to talk him out of going, but enough to let a few morbid thoughts squeeze their way into my colorful imagination.

I’d failed to pack Buddy-roo’s favorite doudou and pillow for her to have with her in the car, this was the original cause for her torrent of tears. The car was parked too far away from home to return to fetch the prized items, she’d have to do without. Then she realized that I wasn’t accompanying them to the country and this became her main beef. There was nothing I could do to console her; I knew the only answer was for De-facto to simply drive away. But that didn’t make it a very easy departure, for any of us.

Within a few blocks, however, the lump in my throat disintegrated and I regained my clarity and you could even say there was a little spring in my step: a contained enthusiasm about the idea of two nights – and full day in between them – to be all alone in my own home.

It’s not that I don’t get time to myself during the course of a regular day (though it never seems to be enough), but it’s impossible to get a long stretch of uninterrupted and unaccompanied hours in my own apartment. I have to be in my studio, or at a café, or away on business – and I do use that time to resource myself – but there’s nothing like a weekend of absolute solitude in the comfort of your very own home. If you live alone, you might not appreciate that sheer joy of this solitude – or maybe you do – but I can tell you with two children and a partner, I forget what tranquility is like, except perhaps late at night when I’m too tired to appreciate it fully.

I love how you walk in the door and it’s absolutely still. Everything is just as you’ve left it. There is no wooden train track encircling the kitchen island with tenuously-constructed bridges tipping over each time you try to move from the refrigerator to the sink. There are no coats left in the hall, no shoes by the couch, no upside-down-and-open books and thin strips of just-cut colored paper and partially-finished spontaneous art-projects left on the table, the floor, the stairs or anywhere in your sight. I know these are the accoutrements of a creative childhood, and I believe I indulge and encourage them sufficiently. But just once in a while, it’s nice to have the house left how I like it, without having to nag anyone to get it that way. This only happens when they’re gone.

Then there’s the quiet. But don’t you love the sound of their feet pounding down the stairs, shouts of “Mama!” delivered with the same enthusiasm as if they hadn’t seen you for weeks, even though you walked them to school this morning? Yes. And. The fact that what’s usually playing in the background at home is the constant chatter of children, the talking and telling and an occasional tantrum, the sound of a hundred plastic pieces being dumped out of a bin onto the floor; it’s all one continuous loop of noise. I get that it’s good noise, it’s the noise of a happy family. But sometimes, it’s just nice to be happy without it, too.

The weekend was all mine. I did go out with some friends, knowing that if I had too much to drink, the following morning’s discomfort could be slept away without having to negotiate the manufacturing of pancakes. Yet I exercised discipline, because I was so excited to have a day to myself to do things alone in my own home, that I didn’t want to spoil this precious opportunity by being even the least bit hungover.

I went for hours without talking with anyone. I talked to myself, out loud, without anyone thinking I was nuts. I worked a little, but not too much. I wrote a little. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted. A little slice-a-heaven.

This weekend coming up, it turns out, I’ll get another break from all that noise. This time I’m the one going away: I’ll slide through the Chunnel to London to attend Cybermummy, a conference for British mums who blog. I didn’t plan these consecutive escapes from the girls (and there’s even another one coming up) and I know I should take advantage of another noiseless weekend without remorse. I should be more excited about going. I am looking forward to the reunion with several of the fab femmes I met last year at the BlogHer conference. But packing my suitcase tonight, I looked out at the mess of shoes and books and toys strewn about my living room, and I heard the girls upstairs opening and closing drawers, changing in and out of play-dresses and costumes, acting out the wild stories or singing songs they’ve made up on the spot, and I thought, I don’t mind it so much their precious, playful noise.

I might even miss it.