Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
shes_got_the_power
“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”


Aug 23 2013

Pack for Later

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

“Try ironing.”

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

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

.

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


Oct 26 2009

Lying through our Teeth

It’s not easy, maintaining the myth of the tooth fairy.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to perpetuate this little legend. It’s a lie.
I suppose it’s an automatic reflex: The tooth fairy comes to take away our children’s teeth because our parents told us she (it is a she, right?) came to take away ours. Just like Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and rides behind his preternatural reindeer on Christmas Eve because that’s what our parents told us, so we tell our kids. Say all you want about how Santa exists in our hearts and in the spirit of Christmas, but no matter how you dress it up: it’s a big fat lie.
foster_grant_smile
Last summer, Short-pants expelled a baby tooth that had been hanging on for over a month. She was so excited that she put herself to bed early, the tiny piece of enamel centered under her pillow, waiting to be magically traded for a coin, overnight. The next morning she galloped down the stairs in tears.

“The tooth fairy didn’t take my tooth!”
Oh Shit, I said. (Not out loud, though.)
“That can’t be,” I said, audibly.
“It’s true,” she said, lifting her cupped palm up toward me. There it was, that little tooth, the same one that had fallen out of her mouth the afternoon before.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “What’s today’s date? Are we in…is it August?”
“Yes?” she said, verging on hysteria.
“Well of course, the tooth fairy must be on vacation!”
“Really? On vacation?” she said, reining in her sobs, hope in her little voice.
“Everyone in France goes on vacation in August. It’s the same for the tooth fairy.”

De-facto quietly shut the door to his office.

“We just have to try again,” I assured her. We agreed to put the tooth under her pillow the next night, and again the next night – every night in August if necessary – until the tooth fairy returned from her holiday. (That tooth garnered 2 euros, btw, double the usual booty.)

Should I have told her the truth? “Mama was supposed to sneak upstairs and take the tooth from under your pillow and replace it with a one euro coin, but as a result of a 10-hour brunch in the courtyard with Ricky and Lucy, she fell asleep before you did.” (And why does mama speak about herself in the third person on occasions like this?)

Or more brutally: “I forgot.”

Two weeks ago, Buddy-roo’s front bottom tooth was wiggling; this would be her first tooth to come out. I was about to leave for a 10-day trip, De-facto would follow several days later to join me for a work assignment. I worried, what if the tooth fell out while we were gone? I wrote a note to our babysitter – she’s loyal and reliable but from another culture that doesn’t have a tooth fairy – explaining this ritual. She heeded my request but because Buddy-roo wanted us to see the tooth before it was relinquished to the fairy, it was put away for safekeeping. When we returned, the babysitter
without_toothwent to get it from the basket on top of the microwave oven, where she’d put it, but looked back at me in a panic. She uttered one word, the name of our cleaning guy, and the whole story was clear.

“Wait,” I said to Buddy-roo, who was impatient for me to examine the lone tooth. “I really want to see it, but I have to do one thing first.” I nodded at our babysitter to let her know I had a plan. I ran to my bedroom closet, dug into those precious jewelry cases stashed in the back, and pulled out one of Short-pant’s little lost teeth – probably the same one from last August. Returning to the scene of the crime, “Now, let me see that tooth,” I rummaged around the top of the microwave, pretending to find the tooth that had been left there. Buddy-roo even inspected it herself and couldn’t tell the difference. Crisis averted.

Essayist Paul Graham suggests that adults lie constantly to their kids for a number of possibly legitimate reasons: to protect them, to preserve their innocence, to maintain our authority – or sometimes simply to keep the peace.

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

Will my daughters resent me when they discover this? I never held it against my parents. Why? Why didn’t I resent being lied to? Will my girls forgive me when they find out the truth about Santa? The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy? And anything else I might have to make up just to help them make sense of this world?

I asked De-facto if he was uncomfortable with the ruse of the tooth fairy. He said losing a tooth could be pretty traumatic for a little kid. Maybe knowing the tooth fairy sees value in this small spare part makes up for the shock of having it fall out of your mouth.

So I lie to my kids. Sometimes for their own good. Sometimes for my own sanity.

Like the time we let the girls watch Sophia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. It’s one of those films made for an adult audience, but it’s nuanced enough that the girls can watch it. At the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Marie Antoinette is being taken away in her carriage and she looks out the window at the Petit Trianon for the last time.

“Where is she going?” Buddy-roo asked.
“They’re taking her to prison.” I said.

Then there’s a shot – maybe the last one in the film – very slowly panning the boudoir of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, which has been totally
Versailles_bedroomtrashed by the angry mobs of protesters that made their way to Versailles.

“But why did she go to jail?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Because she didn’t clean her room.” I said, nodding at the screen, “Look.”
“Oh,” she said, “She really went to jail because she didn’t clean her room?”
“That’s right.”


Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.
mess

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer