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 17 2011


Hand in hand we walked across the bridge, oblivious to the Seine beneath us or Notre Dame’s buttresses stretching out behind us. We were too absorbed in the volley of our spelling practice. I’d pronounce a word, and Short-pants would spell it out. Another word, another spelling out.

“P-R-E-F-E-R-E-N-C-E,” she spelled, with pride, “because the vowel you prefer is an E.”

It isn’t really, and I don’t favor any letters of the alphabet in particular, but these are the sorts of devices we came up with to correct the mistaken words, funny little stories or tricks to remember the spelling. Short-pants was batting nearly a thousand, the only word she missed on the walk to the Paris Spelling Bee was the word feud, which I realized we probably hadn’t quizzed her on because it’s short and therefore ought to be easy. These are the words that get you, the ones you don’t bother to study. And feud doesn’t follow the when-two-vowels-go-walking rule, so it’s tricky.

“Do you know what feud means?” I asked her. She didn’t, so I told her, “It’s a fight that goes on for a long, long time, like a feud between two families that lasts for generations.”

“It’s like the vowels are fighting,” she said, “because the first one’s supposed to do the talking but instead the second one is.”

That’s a good way to remember it.

At the school where the preliminary competition was held, English prevailed. The French don’t really do spelling bees, and this friendly contest is organized by three anglo-oriented organizations: Gifted in France, the Roaming Schoolhouse and The American Library in Paris. That library is a resource that I forget to use. It’s too far away – across the river on the other side of town – I feel like I need to take my passport to get there.

We ran into only two acquaintances while we were waiting for the competition to start. The spelling bee is not obligatory and none of Short-pants classmates were keen to participate. But she was; her enthusiasm from participating last year had not waned, despite the fact she hadn’t made it beyond the first round. She’d been eager to sign up again and appeared to relish the occasions when we’d grill her on the words, not all of them easy. Salutatorian? Eviscerate? She’d rattle off each letter and then I’d say, “Do you know what it means?” The answer was usually no, so I’d try to make an easy definition for her, one that might help her remember the spelling. We’ve learned a lot of vocabulary over the last weeks, too.

The preliminary test was a written deal, so the students assembled were prepared to write twenty-five words and ten bonus words for tie-breaking purposes. The shortlist of finalists compete orally, in a stand-up-and-spell event which is coming up this Sunday, March 20th.

Children and parents milled around, last minute quizzing and pep talks before the students were invited to enter the classrooms for their test. I heard one woman round up a gang of girls, one can only assume that she had a couple of daughters and maybe she was chaperoning some of their friends – it was hard to tell and I hadn’t paid much attention until I heard her say, “Okay let’s rock it, girls. I didn’t come here today for nothing.”

Indeed, spelling is a competitive American sport.

My parting words to Short-pants, I’d like to think, a bit more reserved: “You’ve worked really hard. You’re ready. Go give it your best and try to have fun.”

“And relax!” she added, parroting something I said to her the night before. That was my father speaking. He’d counsel me to prepare for a test ahead of time, and then, the night before, go to a movie, just to relax. I never managed to follow this advice, but I always thought it was a good idea.

~ ~ ~

“How do you spell significant?” My sister’s response when she heard the news that Short-pants had qualified for the final round of the spelling competition.

“S-I-G-N-I-F-I-C-A-N-T.” Short-pants rattled off the letters, and this wasn’t even on the new list of words she had to memorize. Between the list for the first written round, and another list for the final oral round, Short-pants has perfected her spelling of nearly 600 words during the last two months.

My sister seemed genuinely impressed.

“Do you know why I asked?” she said. Short-pants couldn’t guess.

“I was in a spelling bee once, too. That’s the word that kept me from winning.” My sister, just like De-facto and I, had brushed close to victory in the final round of her spelling bee, but had been knocked out of the competition by a word she would then spell correctly for the rest of life.

Short-pants laughed out loud. “Oh, like mama misspelled alcohol and papa went down on crocodile.” She proceeded to spell both words without error.

~ ~ ~

I’m a long way from home. It took me 26 hours in the air and three travel days to get to New Zealand. Twelve time zones ahead, I watch the sun rise on a new today while I know it’s setting on yesterday back in Paris. I picture De-facto and the girls going through the evening routine of dinner and homework while I’m getting dressed for the day and heading to breakfast. It feels like I’m in the bow of a long, long boat, with the rest of the world aft in the mid-ships and stern. There’s even a digital delay; every morning I wake to dozens of emails that have accumulated while I slumbered. I answer them and then my computer remains quiet until the evening. It’s rather nice for concentrating and focusing. A bit eerie, though.

I’m not a whinging traveler, I take great pleasure when I’m en route and I have never minded traveling alone. This trip has put me with good colleagues and intelligent company. I’ve been on a bushwalk around the geothermal reserve park at Hells Gate (so named by George Bernard Shaw because going there shifted him from atheist to believer); I’ve been treated to a Māori hangi dinner and cultural performance that threatened to be touristy but ended up just being delightful; I saw the southern cross, and I understand now why I came this way.

But I have to admit – possibly due to the unfolding catastrophes in Japan – I’m feeling a bit uneasy. When things go haywire in the world, I think it’s a natural instinct to want to draw your loved ones around you. Only my arms won’t reach that far.

Because of the time difference and my busy agenda here, the overlap of awake and available windows for chatting with my family are narrow. I’m left to spell out my affection in emails. Because of the distance traveled, it makes sense to stay on a while (with De-facto’s blessing) to visit friends I’ve long wanted to visit. But that means I have to send my “you worked hard, give it your best” pep-talk to help Short-pants gear up for this weekend’s spelling bee via Skype. I’d rather be closer. But I’m not.

So I’m hoping you might help me out. Would you leave an encouraging word in the comments section for Short-pants, to let her know you’re rooting for her to do well at the spelling bee? A little support, advice, affection, some cheering-on, whatever comes to mind – it’ll help me feel better about missing the event, and it might give her a boost until next week, when I get to make a bee-line back home.