May 2 2011

Comparing Saturdays

She had a rehearsal, for the school play, an abridged version (thankfully) of the Wizard of Oz. Short-pants is Glinda the Good Witch of the North in one scene, and she plays the Scarecrow in another. It’s a brilliant touch, I think, to cast several children in each of the roles: it cuts down on the pressure to memorize an entire script and gives many kids a chance to star. Buddy-roo is, of course, one of the Dorothys, and has perfected the turn of the ankle that shows off the ruby-red-slippers. But that scene wasn’t being rehearsed this weekend, so I had only Short-pants to fetch.

The rehearsal, it turns out, was held at an apartment just two blocks from where I lived when I first moved to Paris. Walking along the streets of the neighborhood, a gale of memories blew in, not quite as fierce as Dorothy’s voyage through the cyclone, but just as vivid. All those familiar faces and feelings that come when you return to a place that was once yours. I had sub-let a fantastic 100-square-meter Haussman-era apartment, decorated in an arty, eclectic style that suited me perfectly. I remember moving in and feeling at home in an instant.

The residue of those early days in Paris stays with me. I used to pinch myself to make sure I was really here. I’m sure I was a lot lonelier than I ever have would have admitted to myself; the thrill of living in Paris can keep you from realizing how unhappy you might be during those first months of adjustment. In retrospect, I had my share of uneasy-and-really-alone moments. But, oh, what I wouldn’t give to be that lonely again.

Saturdays were different then. Morning started at noon, and if I happened to be awake before twelve, it was only to make coffee and slip back into bed. I read all the time. The pile of “books on deck” much more reasonable than it is now, as it spiders off my bed-table and onto the floor in multiple piles that I never seem to read through. When I’d finally venture out of the apartment, it was often with no particular destination in mind. I explored the main boulevards in each direction, wandering off side streets and into alien neighborhoods. I walked the city. I’d stop at a café simply because it looked inviting. I ate lunch or I didn’t. I’d explore until I got tired and then I’d find a metro station and make my way back home, sometimes staying out until it was late and dark, but having followed every single whim of mine, all day long.

Sometimes there’d be lunch dates, lovely long appointments without boundary. We’d linger as long as we wanted after the café had been served, then go window shopping or stop at a gallery or just walk and talk and then go somewhere else for another café or a carafe of wine. There wasn’t anything else to do. At that time, my job involved work that could be completed during the week. My workday ended when I was done with work, not when the kids were done with school; those last precious hours of productivity before a typically late dinner meant I rarely had to work on the weekend. Saturday was just a day for me. To go out, or stay home, to do nothing in particular, to do whatever I wanted. On my own clock.

These days, I’m usually trailing the kids to some activity, eyeballing those single, childless people at café tables in the midst of their extended lunches and leisurely afternoons with no small amount of envy. I can still make lunch plans with friends – and I do – but it’s different. There’s a window of time. After a few hours, as delicious as it’s been to sit out at the terrace and eat and drink and people-watch, there’s always something nagging at me. There’s a clock ticking. I need to be home by 3:15 because De-facto has something he has to do, or I promised Buddy-roo I’d do a project with her or it’s just not fair to leave one parent in charge all day long without at least touching base. I can’t remember a Saturday where there wasn’t an gnawing itch of something I ought to be handling: getting a child to a rehearsal, a play-date, a birthday party, addressing paperwork that I couldn’t get to during the week, monitoring homework, drafting that thing I’m supposed to write, cleaning out that shelf, going through that pile. There’s always something or somebody that needs taking care of.

But this Saturday actually had a tinge of something from those earlier, freer weekends. I picked up Short-pants at her rehearsal and we set out. She was on her scooter, speeding ahead, but stopping at each street crossing and waiting for me to catch up. We walked home via Lil’ Weasel, a tiny knitting store in one of Paris’ charming off-the-tourist-path passages to pick up some double point needles she’d been asking for. We meandered for a while, stopping to look in store windows. We sat at a café and shared a panini for lunch, making up stories about the people who walked by. We went by my new favorite store on rue Rambuteau, La Pistacherie, its shelves stocked with apothecary-shaped jars of nuts of every kind, each one salted or spiced or enrobé with cheese or wasabi or some eccentric ingredient. We test-tasted as many nuts and berries as the store-keeper would let us, our eyes widening at each treat he offered. We walked to Ile St Louis and sat on the curb watching a buskerer let loose enormous soap bubbles in the wind.

We ended up meeting De-facto and Buddy-roo at the school courtyard, open exceptionally this last Saturday to host a vide grenier for people who took seriously enough their spring cleaning to have brought belongings to be sold at the school-sponsored flea market. A friend visiting Paris (the spring visitor season has officially commenced) joined us and we wandered home, almost aimlessly, stopping at an ice-cream kiosk for a treat. The sky was mostly sunny blue but for that one very dark cloud hovering just above us; we had to take shelter in the doorway of a church during the 6-minute rainstorm-in-the-sun. And then, slowly, we made our way home.

It was almost like the good ol’ days. Almost. Okay not really, but at least Saturday afternoons are no longer hampered with diapers and naps and hungry melt-downs. I should know better than to compare my life now with life before; better to be present with the current reality and look forward to what’s ahead. Maybe I’ll get those lazy all-about-me Saturdays back, probably just about the time I won’t want them anymore.

Mar 24 2011

Somebody’s Mother

He plugged in the cable attached to my helmet, checked to be sure my visor was shut tight. Turning to his motorcycle, he straddled it, lifted and centered it, started the engine. I stepped on to the foot pedal and lifted my other leg high over the backrest, hoisting myself into the seat behind my friend Sebastian. I squeezed my arms around him to let him know I was good to go, forgetting that we had the benefit of being wired, allowing us to listen to music (Buena Visa Social Club and Madeline Peyroux) and to chat back and forth during the ride.

“Does that mean you’re ready?” he said.

We pressed through the light Sunday traffic, stopping and idling and starting again, weaving in and out of the lines of cars, splitting the lanes to move ahead. We weren’t overly impatient, but we both felt sense of urgency to get to the open road.

How long since I’d been on a motorbike? A while, maybe four years. It was in Milan, one unseasonably summer-like March evening, and in fact, it was on a Honda Phateon with Sebastian’s father. I was on my way to Rome, but stopped to see his dad, who had reason to be sad, and though I explained the visit as a gesture to cheer him up, it turns out that I was the one that needed to be reassured that he was okay. The night was too warm not to take out his motorcycle; he drove through the streets as only a seasoned-in-Italy driver can. The sky was clear, the moon friendly, summer felt close and everything was, eventually, going to be okay.

Stream of consciousness is like a river that flows where it wants, and one Italian motorbike memory becomes the tributary to another. I was a junior in college. He looked like Eric Clapton. Where did I meet him? Outside the Uffizi? Or near the Accademia where I’d stared up at the David for hours? I was only in Florence for a few days, but it was enough time to find a local guide with two wheels. Imagine being twenty, on the back of a Vespa with a handsome local; it’s a Rosetta Stone commercial waiting to happen. One night we sped out to Siena, winding roads with poplars silhouetted against the not-quite-night sky, the full hue of dusk my favorite shade of indigo.

Which made me think of another Italian ride, nearly a dozen years later, in my early thirties. Not on a bike, but in the back of a very fast car that my college roommate – who was visiting for a few weeks to Thelma-and-Louise with me through France, Switzerland and Italy – and I had no business being in. The owner and driver of the flashy automobile was someone we’d met a few hours earlier, flirting at a restaurant. Visiting the Termé de Petriolo seemed like a fine idea – “Just think of Rob and Laura Petrie,” my friend said to me, when I asked her for the third time where they said we were going – until we were speeding around narrow curves at a velocity much faster than was prudent. There were two conversations going in my head, at 150 kmh. The first voice, the father’s daughter, wondering how the hell I’d gotten myself in the back of this car in the middle of nowhere in the hands of two men unknown to us before, traveling at speeds that were putting our lives at risk. The other, watching the headlights skim across the rocks and cliffs as our car twisted through Tuscan hairpin turns, thinking this is thrilling and if I die here, at least I’ll go out having a marvelous adventure.

Hot springs have healing properties and it turns out they sober you up, too. Remarkably, no harm of any kind came to any of us, there was only laughing and swimming and then a more reasonable drive back to the city as the sun was rising and we found a café to have an espresso before we were dropped at our hotel.

I shudder to think how ridiculously dangerous that was, and how absolutely alive I felt through the entire experience and how it really did all turn out okay. My father always said I was naive enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but smart enough to get myself out. Lucky might be another word. Either way, I hope something more than this lucky intelligence is passed on to the next generation of daring girls.

What risks you can take when you’re young and single. I can’t do that now. I’m a parent.

Sebastian put the brakes on and I lurched forward against his back. “Sorry,” he said, but I knew he wasn’t being reckless. A car ahead had changed lanes and everyone’s brake lights had flashed. But he wanted to reassure me, probably because of the sharp intake of breath he’d heard, picked up by my microphone and sent to his headset, “we’ll be out of the city traffic soon.”

“I’m okay,” I told him, “I know that you know that I need to get home to my kids.”

This is what parenting does to you. It makes you worry about things that didn’t trouble you before. I makes you skittish. It makes you nervous. It makes you say affirmative, cautious things like, “I know you’ll get me home safely,” because now that you have offspring, the desire to be reckless, or worry-free, is muted, hampered by the hormones of responsibility. I have to be careful to stay alive to help them grow up, and not to scar their childhood with an untimely departure. I can’t die in some silly, tragic motorcycle accident on a curvy mountain road; I’m somebody’s mother.

Riding tandem on a motorcycle is a gentle team building exercise. It’s easy to hold on too tight at the start, to be uncertain. You need time to get used to being on this particular bike with that particular driver. But soon enough, driver and rider find a synchronicity. Maybe the rider gets used to it and relaxes and the driver feels that and relaxes, too – or vice versa. Soon the two are leaning into curves as one, like Astaire & Rogers, dancing lightly around the winding turns of even the most serpentine mountain roads.

Which is how my friend Sebastian and I rode to and from Martinborough, an hour’s drive away. Together we drank in the stunning New Zealand scenery, the music, the conversation, the good weather. He was the designated driver and I was the designated wine taster. There was nothing dangerous about the day. It was all pleasure.

Still, even with our prudence, I had a moment on the back of his BMW F650 CSA. A swift, noisy acceleration to pass a car so we could speed ahead unhampered, Ry Cooder sliding his way through the speakers, the famed super moon rising on the violet horizon, it was one of those but if I died now, at least I’d die happy moments.

With little ones around, the prevailing thought is I can’t die yet. The survival instinct is heightened beyond my own desire to keep living. I cannot imagine not seeing them through their puberty and into adulthood, not to mention I’m too damned curious about who they’ll become to leave the theater this early. Devil-may-care days are gone for good; there’s something else at stake once you’ve become a parent, something else at stake other than you and the thrill of your own wild moment.

But it’s nice, just for a few seconds, leaning into that hairpin turn, with the sun on your back and the open road ahead, to know that a few risks, in moderation, can still be taken. The key is to take that not-afraid-to-live-fully feeling home, and infuse it in the first big hug that wraps around those children.

And then, when they’re older and they want to go to Italy on their own, just not to think about it too much.

Mar 2 2011

The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.

Dec 26 2010

Picturing Endrina

I used to keep photo albums. Once or twice a year I’d sort through the pictures, pulling them out of a tall stack of black cardboard envelopes, each one with two or three-dozen pictures that had been developed after a trip or a holiday or a gathering of friends. I’d put the photographs in some kind of narrative order and, with immense satisfaction, glue them into the albums. I kept at it during Short-pants’ earliest years, and even managed an album or two for Buddy-roo, not wanting her to suffer from second-child-with-hardly-any-photographs syndrome. But sometime around Buddy-roo’s second birthday, I stopped adding albums to the cupboard. Partly because life got really busy, partly because I stopped using film, partly because a dozen different digital options for storing and sharing photographs popped up on the web, changing they way everyone keeps their photographs, including me.

In a way it’s unfortunate. There’s something about a hand-made album that carries a warmth that an on-line slide-show cannot duplicate, even with a music track. The mother-in-love just sent De-facto two beautiful photograph albums she’d made for him for Christmas, pictures of him and his family from childhood and adolescence. You could smell the love on the pages, with every turn. But life is digital now, and time is scarce. I suppose I’ve opted to blog instead of keeping scrapbooks and photo albums.

A provocation to select a photograph, from all those taken in the last year, that captures something essential about who I am (or want to be) inspired yesterday’s thorough review of the haphazardly-organized 2010 picture file. This retrospective reminded me that the last year was an up and down journey, with spikes of grief and bliss in rapid succession. But the choice was easy. You may not think so because I’ve chosen two, but they go together, they were snapped within twenty seconds of each other. They both capture me in my favorite condition of alegría, a Spanish word that means joy or jubilation, but within the context of the fiesta San Fermin, its meaning has an exponential quality.

The stocky man who has effortlessly thrust me into the air, much to my surprise, is fondly referred to by his friends as Puchero. He is a force, blunt and direct, with a crass sense of humor. But when he sings the jota ballads – and during San Fermín he does so every morning at our breakfast table – his robust energy, directed through the poetic words of these songs, is beautiful and often tear-inducing.

In these photographs I am a bit surprised – I did not expect Puchero’s abrupt dance moves – but a good surprise is followed by fun, and it’s clear I am having a good time. I am in a state of pure joy. I feel as free and alive as I will feel all year long. I am who I know myself to be, without the labels of a profession or a family. I’m just me, experiencing alegría.

I am Endrina.

The Reverb10 prompt about changing my name for a day, at first, didn’t particularly inspire me. But as I was writing about these choice photographs of the year, I realized that if I could call myself by a different name, it would be Endrina. This is the small, dark berry that is pressed to make my favorite elixir, patxaran. This is also the name I offer when, at the fiesta, I want to be friendly without giving my real name to a stranger who’s asked. (I’ve also been Flora, with my sister Fauna, but that’s another story.) Endrina is who I am when I am taking a brief vacation from the responsibilities and the consequences of my life. She is who I am when I’m experiencing, fully, alegría.

Photo credit: Guillermo Navarro is the photographer who captured Endrina (and Puchero) in rare form. See more of his photos here.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to two prompts. One is from Tracey Clark: Photo – a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you. The second is from Becca Wilcott: New name. Let’s meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

Jul 16 2010

Running Rituals

The alarm goes off, but we have already been awakened by someone on the street buzzing our door to come up for the encierro. Our balcony overlooks Calle Estafeta, where we can see the bulls on the street below as they run by, so we extend invitations to various friends (and occasional strangers) to come up to watch the ritual running of the bulls. Our instructions are precise: come at the last possible moment, minutes before 7:00 when the street is blocked off for cleaning before the run begins at 8:00. The drop key, permanently tied to a long white string, is lowered through the stairwell to allow our guests to pass the locked door at the bottom of the five flights of stairs to our apartment. We usher them out to our balcony so they can watch the street as it’s prepared for the run, and we go back to bed. That extra twenty minutes of sleep can mean everything.

But before 8:00, we, too, must be up, dressed and ready to run. Not with the bulls, but between our living room, where we can see the bull-run on the television, and the balcony, where we charge out as the bulls turn the corner to run up our street. Their broad brown backs rush forward, the bells on the steers that accompany them make the soundtrack to their morning run. On a good day, the bulls are still packed together with the steers as they run toward the corrida, and a few skilled (or lucky) runners sprint ahead of them, just off to the side of their horns.

After the instant replay of the encierro and ensuing TV commentary, we rush our guests out the door and head to the Bar Txoko where many of the runners we know go to swap stories and drink ritual morning drink: Kaiku y Cognac, a sweet vanilla milk mixed with a double-shot of cognac. It so happens that the street cleaners choose that moment to clean the very patch of the Plaza de Castillo where we stand, so we are forever maneuvering our conversations around to accommodate the sweepers and hose-masters who are kindly cleaning up after the previous night’s party, only part of the party that goes on for nine days. These guys are the true heroes of the fiesta, constantly cleaning the streets of the gray goop that is a mixture of beer and wine and urine and puke that accumulates during the week.

A quick drive-by to greet the brothers Carmelo and Fermín at the newsstand where we buy a paper with the photographs of the previous day’s bullrun and bullfight, and then on to our breakfast club, a long table set up in the street where friends meet to eat greasy eggs or pochas or bull stew. Such nourishment can be acquired anywhere, but we always take it here to be in the company of a few very distinctive jota singers who serenade us with traditional Navarran ballads with poignant lyrics (like wishing to be an ivy vine in order to crawl up to your window just to watch you sleep).

The midday rituals have some variation, but might include a long meander through the city streets in search of the Gigantes, a troupe of eight giant figures that represent the kings and queens of the different continents of the world. This year I saw them no less than a half-dozen times, their towering figures turning side-to-side in an enchanting dance in step to the music of the high pitched txistulari pipers. The Gigantes are at least three times the size of the men who carry and spin them for hours every morning; occasionally you see the figures stop and appear to stand still in the street as the men slip out from under the robes and duck into a nearby bar for a rest and a drink. In the meantime, parents carry their toddlers up close to examine the clumps of pacifiers that dangle from the wrists of the giants. When Pamplonese children are ready to stop using their binkies, they give them up to the Gigantes. This is a ritual I find priceless; I can imagine the conversations between the child and parents as the fiesta approaches, the building up to the ceremonial hand-off of the prized pacifier, tying it to the enormous hand of their chosen Gigante. I had a fine childhood, but if I could do it over, I’d do it in Pamplona.

This is the moment that seems to have become a ritual for me, when I wonder why Short-pants and Buddy-roo and De-facto are not there with me, swallowed by the sea of white and red and music and magic. I have kept the fiesta San Fermín as my annual escape, but each year I wonder, how can I not share this with them? For how long should it remain my getaway with my girlfriends and my “Pamplona friends?”

The fiesta is embedded with rituals, those offered up by the proud Basque culture, the noble Taurino traditions, not to mention those that my friends and I have invented for ourselves in the years we’ve been attending. Like our Hemingwayesque ritual of taking two days in the green Navarran countryside just prior to the start of the fiesta, when my girlfriends and I stay at our favorite B&B. Here we slide into the Basque culture, nibbling our favorite asparagus and drinking homemade Patxaran. We retire early and sleep in, padding the sleep bank before the fiesta quickly depletes it. In the morning, we take over a table to create masterpieces of jewelry we bead together with small plastic bulls that have been borrowed from Tequila bottles from a Mexican Kmart. Our own spontaneous designs that every year we make, wear and give away: the running of the bull-earrings.

Each day in Pamplona, a brief afternoon nap rejuvenates us to make the run for sandwiches and cookies (and a chilled bottle of Rosado) to carry into the corrida for the post third bull snack. The bullfight itself is a remarkable ritual, a 3-act drama of skill, bravery and intimacy. Though I am far from an aficionada, there was one moment this year that moved me to tears: the matador raised his hand to stop his cuadrilla as they came to his aide. He knew he had done his work well, the bull was ready to die, and so he stood back with his hand raised, and waited for the bull to fall. It happened swiftly; a good death, with grace and honor, the kind we all hope for. It made me think of my mother, of course, how nobly she fought during the last year of her life, and the dignity of how she finally let go.

Each year I painfully extract myself from my friends and the festivities and leave to be with Short-pants to celebrate her birthday, which falls the day before the end of the fiesta. I could have gotten a pass this year, I suppose, having done my duty with the big party last month, except that I want to be with her on her birthday. As hard as it is to leave the fiesta early, the return is always a relief. This year was no exception: I was as glad as ever to see De-facto and the girls waiting for me at the train station, waving wildly when they spotted me.

“I missed you so much,” cried Short-pants, throwing her long arms around me. “Where did you get those white shoes?” said Buddy-roo, who notices everything, especially if it has to do with new items of clothing or jewelry.

Over the last few days, the final post-fiesta rituals have been enacted without fail: the detoxification, the redepositing of sleep in the bank; the gradual removal of those haggard circles under my eyes; the return to an exercise regime to address the abnormal number of carbohydrates consumed at the fiesta; the washing of the whites, which requires the special formula of
bleach and Coca-Cola (this tip given to us by a Spanish grandmother we met in the supermarket) to get that gray goop off the bottom of all my white jeans; the telling of stories (only mildly toned down) and the fierce expression of gratitude toward De-facto, who always lets me run just as far as I need.

Jul 3 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 10 2010

Of Whales and Women

We trudged along the sandy path lined with scallop shells, following it to the edge of the camp and down a narrower path leading to the beach. We were a symphony of sporting gear: our waterproof pants shooshing back and forth in rhythm with each step, our knee-high rubber wellies marching out a hollow gahlump-gahlump percussion as we crossed the sandy flats to the rocks where the pangas were moored. Each one took her turn sitting on the gunwale, swinging legs over into the small boat until six plus the guide were situated on the flat bench seats and Ranulfo, the driver – whose father was the first person to touch a whale in this lagoon – pushed off and drove out, away from the shore.

A 5-minute open-throttled ride until we reached the point at the edge of the lagoon, where the boat slowed and stopped, radioing “Tico, Tico, Tico!” for permission to enter. Tico, guardian of the lagoon, squawked his okay on the radio and waved back to us from his chair on the shore. The panga motored forward and into the dark green waters of the lagoon.

This escape, a whale-watching trip to Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, was the inspired idea of my friend the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who needs no excuse to abduct her gal-pals for a good adventure, and yet she used the occasions of a rather monumental birthday and International Woman’s Day as reasons to invite a gaggle of girlfriends from every stage of her life to join her in the Baja in search of gray whales. Imagine a remote camp on the beach with 18 wildish whale-smitten women. The days were sunny and slow, pivoting around patient excursions into the lagoon to watch for whales. Happy happy happy hour started at sunset and stretched through dinner and late into the night. Many of us, liberated from motherly duties, took advantage of these un-dutied days, as did those not encumbered with family appendages, equally happy for the leisure. One imagines that the crew at this camp – kind and most attentive – didn’t expect a pack of women to consistently stay up as late, drink as much beer and generate as much sexually innuendoed humor as we managed to stir up. Plus we were crazy about the whales.

“Look, eleven o’clock,” someone shouted, pointing just left of the bow. A football field’s length away, the shiny body of a gray whale thrust itself straight up out of the water. “That’s a spy-hop,” said our guide, José. Everyone in the boat fell silent, probably pondering what it would be like to be able to push more than a third of your own body weight vertically out of the water without touching the sea floor. “Why do they do that?” someone finally asked. José’s answer became one of the trip mottos: “Because they can.”

“Three o’clock!” All heads turned to starboard. About 15 meters from the boat, a 20-foot long gray whale dipped out and back into the water. Ranulfo turned the nose of the boat and inched forward respectfully, taking us to get a closer look. “That was the baby,” José said, “now look for the mama.”

Everyone sat upright, on vigil, heads left to right scanning the water, cameras poised. The sea held its breath like we held ours, until a long thick mammal came into view, submerged, hovering – maybe even teasing us – before breaking through the surface and baring her knuckled spine.

She was in no hurry. Her thick spotted body skimmed the water in first gear, turning slightly just before she disappeared, leaving only an odd rounded footprint into which the waves could not penetrate. Ranulfo cut the engine so we heard only the waves lapping against the wooden panga. We sat, frozen, for the longest, quietest minute. Just when I had given up, certain they had swum beneath us and far away, both whales, mama and baby, sliced open the surface in tandem, gliding in slow-motion through the water only a few meters from our boat. The mother’s body was thick and spotted, decorated with patches of barnacles. The baby whale – José estimated it was a month old – was smoother, newer, no discoloring on the skin. It had not yet picked up the marks that scar and give character to an older whale, the markings that mamas (and women of a certain age) collect over time, the wear and tear and bumps and barnacles that come from navigating an ocean from one lagoon to another season after season.

The timing of this trip was not uncomplicated. When I made the decision to attend, I did not know that I would spend three weeks away from home this winter, caring for my mother. I engaged in a serious debate with myself to decide if this trip was still doable. I was not sure I’d have the stamina. I wondered about the wisdom of a third transatlantic aller-retour in 6-week window of time. I was also a little bit afraid that escaping to a secluded camp with no technology to distract me would be too much of an opportunity to confront my grief. Running about and being busy is further protection from the pain that still feels so close, a long shadow just below the surface waiting to breach.

But De-facto and his mother offered their full support, so I hugged my little girls goodbye, again, and boarded the plane to find myself removed from the strain of the recent chain of events and enveloped in the rounded embrace of the best friends of one of my best friends: clever, accomplished, adventuring women, in abundant possession of wise words, crazy spirits and a good dose of humor; well keeled women unafraid to camp outside and live out loud.

On the other side of the lagoon, we cruised directly into the patch of birded water filled with flocks of gulls and terns and egrets, and the occasional pelican with his beak pressed shut as if keeping a secret. Some of the birds took wing as we sped by; others paid us no attention, perching nonchalantly on the surface of the water. Beside us, three dolphins danced in and out of the water like lords-a-leaping, keeping pace with the boat. Just ahead, a whale breached the surface of the lagoon, twisting and slapping the water with its fluke as it slowly dove back in. It felt as though the birds and whales and dolphins had opened a door to us, pulling us fully into their watery world. We were no longer observing the wildlife around us; we had joined it.

What a privilege to spend a string of days with nothing to do but pet a whale’s nose and look her right in the eye, go for long walks on the beach, eat fish tacos and drink shots of mezcal or cold cervezas from a continuously re-stocked ice-chest. Each day, a little of the weight of these last weeks was chipped away. Each day, a few salty tears fell back into the ocean. Each day, I felt a little more restored. I return to my world, hopeful.

Nothing makes up for the loss of one’s mother, but the healing company of so many compassionate middle-aged sisters sure helps. Like the mama whales, we’re all a little bit worn; we’ve collected the marks that build character. We’ve endured the wear and tear and bumps and bruises that come from caring and crying, from coaxing ourselves through the odd passages of life that test and jeer at us. We keep swimming forward with grace, navigating what life hurls at us, season after season, each one of us breaching and spy-hopping and dancing in the water in our own unique way, because we can.

Dec 29 2009

Garbo Days

You know I love those two little rug-rat creatures of mine. They furnish dozens of adorable moments each day, doing or saying something funny or sweet. The simple extension one of their peach-soft hands upward toward me, a gesture of such complete trust, is sometimes all it takes to wet my eyes and thrust me into a state in awe. How did I ever have such beautiful children? I must have done something good.

However there are just as many dozen moments in the day when I would just like them to please be quiet and go away and leave me alone. If you listen closely, you can hear me parrot Greta Garbo under my breath, “I want to be alone.
I want to be alone.”

I’m not the first woman to know this paradox, and I won’t be the last.

You can imagine, then, the gladness and joy I experienced when one of the presents under the Christmas tree for Mère Noel was De-facto’s offer to take Short-pants and Buddy-roo to the country for a few days – without me.

He knows my fondness for going to the country house wanes in winter. It’s a lot of work to open and close the house in the warmer months, but in the cold weather that work is augmented by all things that must be undone and then done again to protect pipes and water tanks. Not to mention arriving to an unheated house. It takes at least two days for the wood stove to truly warm the walls and you have to let the fire die before you leave. The visit, then, is book-ended by hours of hovering and shivering and wearing mittens inside. My idea of nothing to do.

Late on Christmas Day afternoon I shut the trunk and waved as they drove away, and I have been alone, in my home, without another creature stirring for four days. Four days of solitude. Four days of freedom.

The quiet that stretches its waking arms throughout the apartment is delicious. I hear only the muffled voices of people in the street, an occasional sound of a neighbor in the hall, a nearby church bell ringing. No pattering feet. No screaming and crying and “Mama, watch this!” No voices in stereo vying for attention.

There are no marbles, pet-shops-creatures, Barbie shoes or other small, unidentified pieces of plastic left on the floor to torture my bare morning feet. No toys or dirty stuffed animals, no pretend stores, schools, or cars constructed of chairs, pillows and blankets to navigate when crossing my living room. Absolutely no sign of that big doll, often splayed on the couch. I’ve relegated her to a far corner upstairs.

No interruptions when I’m in the middle of something; that means complete privacy during all ablutions and eliminations.

It’s paradise.

What to do with all that time?

There’s reading, an attempt to make a dent in that pile of books on the bed table. There’s writing, on-line and off. There’s sorting and organizing those papers and things that pile up. There’s catching up with my electronic life, clearing out emails and diving deep into the blogosphere. (Ah, the sweet pleasure of unlimited time to click-through; to tumble deep into my curiosity and then into the web of information to satisfy it, without watching the clock.) There’s sleeping in, until noon. There’s complete autonomy. Decisions are all up to me. One day, I didn’t even change out of my pajamas.

I have remembered what is too easily forgotten: hours without boundary. This only fortifies my belief in the importance of solitude. I have never minded being alone. I think both my mother and father made an asserted effort to instill in me – especially, as a youngest sibling – the capacity to be content with my own company. I’m grateful; it means I’m rarely lonely. But this conditioning has its price. Without sufficient private alone time, I become awfully grumpy.

Greta Garbo is quoted as saying, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be left alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Yes. Just because I’m so delighted to be alone does not mean I’d seek permanent separation from my family; if they were gone for good I’d be shattered. I just want, from time to time, to be left alone. The sense of peace that has come over me this weekend proves the value of such solitude; I feel grounded and calm, like the old me.

A text message from De-facto just a few hours ago tells me they’re on their way home. I must admit I’m a bit terrified. The order and solace of my home will be broken, an eruption of laughter and play will bounce off these walls again. I will have to readjust.

At the end of the scene in the movie Grand Hotel, where Garbo utters those words that haunted her for the rest of her career (watch the clip here) she makes a phone call to find out what happened at the ballet. “They didn’t miss me at all,” she whispers, in despair.

It’s probably not today – since I’m pretty sure those two little girls will run strong and fast into my embrace when they return – but I know in a few years time, they won’t even miss me at all. Then maybe I might not appreciate the solitude so much. But for now, how lovely to have been left alone for a few days.

It makes all the difference.

Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

Jul 3 2009

The Mom Also Rises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the fiesta.