Oct 7 2012

A Little Edgy

I know it’s not a becoming word, the f-word. I manage to avoid its use in the presence of clients. It’s harder to edit myself in the more relaxed company of close colleagues or at a bar with friends. Of course I try to refrain from saying it in front of my children, but often the bodies attached to those innocent ears are the source of irritation and rage that elicits the use of the very word I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid.

I suppose this is a serious #fail as a mother. Not that it’s so frequent; it’s still a surprise when it happens and the kids still look at me in shock. Of course I immediately acknowledge that I’ve used a bad word, apologizing and instructing them, please, not to repeat it. Inside I’m kicking myself because I know they’re likely to use it sooner because of my carelessness. I don’t mean to be a foul-mouthed mom. I never heard my mother using the f-word, ever. I think the worst curse I ever heard from her was Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, or maybe an occasional Oh shit. At least here’s one example of me not turning into my own mother.

The thing is, I like the f-word. It’s expressive. It’s fun to say. It starts off all furry. Then there’s a deliberately passionless vowel. And it ends with the sharp bite of ck. It sounds like what it means. I’m not so wild about its use as a verb, but as a general expletive, it’s unsurpassed in its efficient expression of annoyance. It is the pinnacle of curse words.

~ ~ ~

It’s usually the high point of the day for me, watching the Daily Show. After De-facto marches the kids out the door to go to school, I refresh my coffee mug and set myself in front of the previous night’s episode. Sometimes I’ll wait until he returns from the school-run to watch it. If it’s an especially busy day I’ll hold off until bedtime; tucked into our covers with pillows propped behind us, we’ll open my computer to the web page – living abroad we can only view the show via the Internet – and sit back for 20 minutes of funny.

He’s a hero of mine, Jon Stewart, pointing out the absurdities in the news and revealing the illogical policies and practices of Republicans. He makes fun of the Democrats, too, but these days there have been more reasons to ridicule the Republicans. Until this week, that is.

The girls had gone to bed; the house was quiet. I suggested a viewing of the Daily Show before lights out and De-facto agreed. The episode that opened for us was the one in which Stewart reported on the Presidential debates that had aired the night before.

Everything he said about President Obama’s lackluster performance was true. It was a stellar job of poking fun at the campaign and calling out the shockingly sedate stance of the incumbent candidate during this political exercise. De-facto was laughing out loud. I knew it was funny, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too agitated.

I remember when I was little, watching the I Love Lucy show. Lucy would get herself in such a pickle, I’d get too nervous and I’d have to leave the study, where we watched television, and run through all the rooms of the house, several times, ultimately ending up in the hallway sitting on the stairs too upset to return to the TV show. Even though I knew it was just a TV program, it wound me up too much. I had to physically leave the room.

“I can’t look at it anymore,” I told De-facto, before bounding out of bed. I paced around the kitchen and the living room, on edge, cursing. I let the f-bombs fly.

I thought everyone was asleep. I thought wrong. My string of obscenities prompted Short-pants to run down the stairs to see what was the matter.

“What wrong, mama?” She looked alarmed.

“Your future!” I screeched.

I walked her back upstairs and told her my fears about what might happen if President Obama wasn’t re-elected and why I think we need him now, perhaps more than ever. I reminded her of previous discussions we’ve had about women’s rights. I talked about the growing anti-science stance of the extremists in the other party. I tried to explain the impact on the Supreme Court if Mr. Romney were to appoint the next two justices. Thoughts of the latter, almost provoking another f-bomb out of me right there in her presence.

“But I don’t have to worry,” she said. “I live in France.”

“That might not always be the case,” I said, thinking of the modest but consistent donations I’ve started making to my alma mater just in case she wants to go to university in the States.

I’ve become rather invested in the Obama campaign. I haven’t donated just $5 or $41; I’ve attended fundraising events here in Paris that require writing larger checks, the most recent, a Paris fashion-week event hosted by Anna Wintour and Scarlett Johansson. (Mick Jagger even came by.) I worry, daily, about the outcome of the Presidential election. I read Politico and The Dish religiously. Nate Silver is my second hero, after Jon Stewart.

I went to sleep last Wednesday night hopeful for at least an uneventful debate, or at best, a trouncing of the challenger. Thursday morning I scanned the emails from all the news services to which I subscribe, each subject heading more discouraging than the previous. I felt myself shrinking, message by message, until I had to close my laptop computer. I couldn’t read any more. Nobody was home with me, so I just said it out loud without apology: fuck.

~ ~ ~

Last night at the dinner table, after some light-humored nudging about using silverware instead of fingers and napkins instead of sleeves, Short-pants, in a gesture of turnabout-is-fair-play, told our dinner guest, a school friend of Buddy-roo, about how sometimes I let a curse word slip out, and how the other night I was downstairs circling the kitchen island in the dark when I used the f-word. Everyone at the table looked at me like I was the crazy woman that I guess I am.

Some things you can’t lie about, so I owned up to my mistake. But following this political race so closely, I guess I’ve been learning a little about spin.

“Listen,” I said, “ten years from now you’ll think I’m cool. You’ll be able to tell your friends that your mom’s got a little edge.”

“That’s right,” Short-pants smiled broadly, showing the food in her braces. “I’ll say, ‘My mom’s a little edgy.'”

Yeah, okay, maybe not.

Mar 26 2010

The Group

On the way home from school, Short-pants told me about the group.

“I need to wear grown-up clothes tomorrow,” she announced, “because I’ve been asked to join a group.” Her enthusiasm was fierce; she was proud to have been invited. I asked her to tell me about the group. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just know who’s in it, and we’re supposed to wear grown-up clothes.”

After a moment of reflection, I decided to offer, carefully, an unsolicited opinion. I told her how I belong to a few different groups: teams I work with, professional associations, friends from school, from college, from Paris. I told her how groups are good for sharing common interests and getting support and having fun, as long as membership in them doesn’t require being rude to others to or excluding people in an unfair or mean-spirited way. Then I asked her, “Do you think this group is like that?”

“No Mama.”

“Well good, then,” I said. We started brainstorming what kind of grown-up outfit we might put together for her to wear that next day.

I guess this is the age when social groups become more clearly delineated. Instead of being part of a mass identity of the children, small clusters of like-minded, like-interested, informal clubs begin to form, not always with the best intention. I remember when I was a little bit older than Short-pants, a group of tough girls used to select a classmate at random, the tauntee-du-jour, and for any kind of reason they could invent, pick on her and lobby the other students to ignore her, or worse, to mock and ridicule her along with them. I lived in fear that I would become their target. I remember once they taunted a homely girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness, circling and kicking dirt at her in the playground. I didn’t participate, but I stood by and watched them jeer at her without saying a word or stepping in. Later that night, I felt like I should tell my mother about it, but I didn’t. I was too ashamed.

I still regret that.

In high school, I ran with a pretty congenial group. We might have been a clique, but I don’t believe we were intentionally cruel to anyone. (I say that, but my memory may be selective.) One of my friend’s parents owned a motel, and on graduation weekend they let the senior class take it over for a huge party. We barbecued, drank beer (the drinking age was 18 back then) and did our own fatiguing version of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, singing into beer bottles as if they were microphones. When someone suggested a midnight swim, I went to get my bathing suit and it was nowhere to be found. Someone loaned me another, but the next day I found mine crammed into the toilet of one of the furthest motel rooms. The perpetrator, we believed, was a girl from another group, a group made up of some of those same taunting girls from earlier in my childhood.

It hurt. It wasn’t the first time I was picked on or teased, but there was something violent – or violating – about it. I suppose it says something that I remember it now, decades later.

Maybe I should tell that story to Short-pants.

I’m stunned at the vitriol between groups – political groups – in the United States right now. I imagine this was the tenor of things during the civil rights movement, but I was shielded from that by my parents, good old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans, a breed that seems to be an endangered species these days. By the time I came of political age, things were tamer. The Democrats and Republicans disagreed, but the reaching across the aisle that Obama aspires to was not so extraordinary, a little quid-pro-quo-cross-parties was the natural order of being effective in Washington. I think it was like that. Wasn’t it?

Most of my friends supported the passage of the health care reform bill. I also know people who opposed it. But I cannot imagine any of them – on either side of the debate – lashing out at the other side with such venom and physical violence. Threatening the safety of the representatives who supported the bill? Vandalizing their homes and offices? Harassing their families? Bullying everyday citizens simply because they support Obama or the health care reform? I realize that my view of America is shaped by idealistic text-books from the 1970s, but this is not how I understood our democracy to operate. Was I fooled by those cheezy film-strips (beep) or has the typical American’s respect for the rule of law changed so dramatically in the nearly twenty years I’ve lived abroad? Since when is freedom of speech interpreted as the right to be downright rude, to insult, slander and cause physical damage to people in the other group, the ones who think differently. How can it be okay to hate and hurt like this? Not only can groups be mean. They can be dangerous.

The next morning, Short-pants crawled in beside me for her morning cuddle. We started to talk about her wardrobe and what she should select to wear to look grown-up. She wasn’t very responsive to my questions.

“There’s another thing,” she told me, “they said if I want to be in the group, I have to change my hair.” This would mean removing the broccoli-like ponytail she’s taken to wearing, the one that sticks straight up, just over her forehead.

“How to you feel about that?” I asked.

“Well, I like my hair this way.”

We went over her choices, listing the different ways she could respond: Change her hair and join, keep her hair and not join, keep her hair but ask if she could still join. Were there other choices? Maybe, she thought. She wanted some time to think about it.

Later, at breakfast, with a mouthful of pancakes, she told me her decision.
“I think I’m going to tell them thanks but I don’t want to be in the group after all.” She tugged on her vertical ponytail.

My daughter, it seems, has the makings of an Independent.

Sep 10 2009

Involved Enough

In Paris, parents are more or less locked out of school. During the maternelle years – ages 3, 4 and 5 – there’s a convivial morning ritual of accompanying young children to the classroom and returning at the end of the day to retrieve them. But once they hit the classe primaire, or CP – the equivalent of first grade – entry to the school building by parents is almost prohibited.
school_facade Children are dropped at a courtyard in the morning, and met outside the doors at the end of the day. French teachers do not make themselves particularly available to meet with parents. It’s not impossible – and when you do manage a consultation all the right things happen – but the maitresse does not go out of her way to distribute her phone numbers or email address. If you call to make a rendezvous with the school principal, getting past the gate-keeping secretary is a colossal task. A written letter is required, which is usually met with a written response. Something has to be really wrong to get an audience with the directrice.

This is to say what happens behind the school doors is a mystery.

This may have to do with the fact that the French believe that the state is responsible for educating the children of France. The state runs the school, so the school is in charge. Parents meddle as little as possible, sometimes because they believe the school administrators know best, but just as often because they know it’s futile to try and make changes. Being the squeaky wheel only threatens their child’s reputation and ends up being a waste of time.

So at the beginning of the school year, when the parent-teacher meetings are announced, we clear our schedules to attend. It’s the one time we get a peek inside that secret school world, the only time we get a hint of what really goes on in there.

I’m not your over-involved PTA type of mom (more like Harper Valley PTA) but I do harbor a slight curiosity about the curriculum and activities of my offspring. I also have a propensity for mild forms of activism and random acts of problem solving. I remember a few years ago when Short-pants was in the maternelle. The teacher – during that one, precious beginning-of-year parent meeting – lamented that a musician had approached her about working with the students, but unfortunately there was no budget for a music class.

I felt my hand rise up from my lap. I didn’t want it to. I knew it was in vain. But I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t we do some kind of a fundraising activity in the neighborhood?”

No pin was dropped. But had there been, it would have been audible. And I knew what they were all thinking: “Oh that’s the American.” I wanted to scream out at them, “Listen, I can’t believe I just said that either! But shouldn’t we at least try to do something?” Needless to say, there was no special music class that year.

I don’t mean to suggest that French parents don’t help out. They do. They bake quiches for school parties, attend special functions and performances and join the school advisory councils. Of course they care about their children’s scholastic welfare. But where American parents might be very involved in their children’s school, French parents are usually less involved, maybe just enough involved.

I imagine if we lived in the United States, I’d probably be complaining about all the meetings and activities and fundraisers I’d feel compelled to be involved in (or guilty about not attending). Here in France, I get to complain about how it’s hard to be involved in what’s happening at school – or harder to complain about what’s not quite right at school – because the school prefers that you stay out of their hair.

Yesterday, the first of three school meetings I’ll attend over the next two weeks: this one for the parents of bilingual students who take English classes in addition to the rest of their curriculum in French. The parents assembled – an eclectic group of mixed-culture marriages, or like us, English-speaking couples who’ve chosen to live in Paris – are used to volunteering to help with the English Section’s activities, like the Halloween party and the Christmas concert. Still, when the request was made soliciting a parent-liaison for each class, there was an awkward quieting in the room. Pins could be heard. Eyes were averted. Everyone wants to help, sure, but do we want to be that involved?

After the meeting, they served cocktails (yes!) on the school terrace (surnames A-M brought drinks, N-Z contributed food) and I mingled with the other Anglo parents, puzzling together some of the differences between French and Anglo schools. Everyone agrees it’s a little too rigid in France, but maybe it’s gotten bit too loose in other places like America.

Except of course when it comes to the school subject of the week: the windstorm about President Obama’s address to school children. It’s hard – sitting over here – to understand the vitriol directed at Barack Obama, a smart, even tempered, articulate man who wants to involve himself in the education of children by encouraging them to study hard and stay in school.
If I lived in the United States, I’d be grateful that the President wanted to talk to school-aged children. I’d have been one of the parents calling the school to plead for as much access to the speech as possible. I’d have offered to come down and facilitate a post-program debrief for the students to perpetuate a dialogue about his speech, about education, about the process of government – or maybe about the whole controversy and freedom of speech and the right for people to (intelligently) express an opposing view. I’d have been psyched.

But since I live in France, I’ll just watch the back to school speech with Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and we’ll have our own little discussion. Even on this side of the Atlantic, it’s pertinent. Obama’s message is universal.

Tonight there’s another school meeting – this time with the Buddy-roo’s main teacher, the French one. I’ll get to see the classroom. I’ll learn about the weekly schedule. I’ll get the explanation of which cahiers are for what and which colored pens are to be used for which homework assignments. I’ll be reminded about getting to school on time. Questions will be asked and answered. Chances are good there’ll be no solicitation for volunteers. I’ll leave the school still not really understanding what happens, but at least I’ll feel involved enough.

May 18 2009

The Hundredth Hug

In an effort to get the homebodies outside over the weekend (they would stay inside in their pajamas, all day, if we let them) a challenge was issued: Could you get a hundred hugs?
Two years ago, De-facto filmed Short-pants and Buddy-roo at a little park around the corner and created a copy-cat version of the “Free Hugs” video that was rushing around the internet at the time. The girls still remember it; occasionally they’re inspired to scratch out calins gratuit (French for “free hugs”) on a sheet of paper and troll around the house looking for extra love. That’s why my challenge was met with enthusiasm and succeeded in propelling them outside and into the fresh air of the real world.
“Don’t be too close,” was Buddy-Roo’s command as we walked out of the building. She and her sister ran ahead, their signs held high above their heads as they solicited affection from any and all passing strangers.

I know some mothers who would frown upon this: setting two adorable little girls free in a thick crowd of tourists, Sunday shoppers and falafel-eaters (our ‘hood, being a Jewish one, is the only quartier that’s open and vibrant on a Sunday). The girls were in view, more or less, as I trailed them from a distance while they made their way through the busy streets and around the block. I admit when I was first mothering I had my worrywart moments, but I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of a longer leash – rest for me, confidence for them – and I subscribe fully to the idea of Free Range kids.

But in truth, helicopter-moms need not worry. I couldn’t get over the number of people who actually recoiled when presented with a small smiling child holding a sign offering a free hug. They’d nervously look the other way, or move deliberately to avoid the path of my love-hungry children. Hardly an invitation for abduction, it appeared that the signs actually succeeded in keeping strangers away.
The girls were discouraged. A grenadine at my local café-bar was in order. But as soon as they’d guzzled the red elixir, they were at it again, out on the street, signs in the air, expectant smiles at work. Though Buddy-roo tired of the effort, her older sister was relentless. A comment made by a friend at the bar: “Send her to the states in 2012, she’ll get Obama re-elected.”

Persistence pays off. The hugs started to roll in. Short-pants kept careful count, assigning each hug a number and yelling it out to me (inside) every time she received an embrace. Buddy-roo traveled back and forth to the street and hugged her sister again and again, pushing the count up toward the goal. When a hundred hugs was finally achieved (half of them between sisters), I was wondering if it might trigger some kind of cosmic tipping point and suddenly everybody in the café would start hugging each other. There was, however, no visible hundredth monkey shift.

Short-pants was supremely proud of her accomplishment. Buddy-roo was thrilled, too. I was just happy for a little break at the bar.

Then it was time to go home, eat some dinner, have a bath and get back into our pajamas. Along the way, the hugs kept coming, at least another hundred – maybe more.

Mar 27 2009

Who’s to Blame?

She hadn’t even finished making her way down the stairs and into our room to fold herself between us for the morning cuddle when she started issuing complaints. Buddy-roo‘s disposition at this hour of the day (7:00 am) has never been cheerful, nor quiet, but it seems now – at the age of five – to be growing in petulance. We’ve tried to discourage her by ignoring it, forbidding it, making fun of it, and then ignoring it again. We haven’t (yet) found the cure for what ails her every morning. Given that her bed is built into the wall, we can’t even say she got up on the wrong side of it.

No precaution or response on our part seems to change this daily outburst from its current crankiness to something more subtle and cheerful, like her sister, Short-pants, who we hardly hear descending the stairs from her room before the door creaks open and she slides soundlessly under the sheets and into my embrace. Sleep then quickly takes her back into its possession, inviting us to return as well.
Not so Buddy-roo. Something is always wrong. Even though she may have slept well all night in her warm nested cubbyhole. Even though a cup of apple juice is waiting for her on my bed table to quench her morning thirst. Even if her big sister takes the place on my side of the bed – even when she’s the first to wake up and crawl in with us – leaving Buddy-roo the coveted center spot between her parents. Even if there’s no school. Even if pancakes have been promised. It’s a miserable moment, this first one of her day.

For the record, she does cheer up as the day goes on. But the first fifteen minutes are brutal.

This morning her complaint: “I didn’t want the light to come so early.” She preached to a sleeping choir. Her grievance mounted into a full-on whine and then the ultimate attribution:

“It’s cuz of Papa.”

I, too, am quite practiced at faulting him for things that don’t go my way. But this is over the top. It’s not like he left the shade on her skylight open, or he made a boisterous noise that woke us all from deep slumber. Or like he willed the sun to rise. There’s no way to assign the blame to him, as enjoyable as that would be.
But with her, there’s always some other force or person to blame for all her terrible times. Without a moment’s reflection, everything is because of someone else. She lives, remarkably, without responsibility. And without guilt. About this I am actually a little envious.

But is she different than any one of us? Only in her honesty. I think deep down we all like to blame someone else for our misfortunes. We blame Wall Street, the banks, the Fed. We blame the sub-prime lenders and also the people who signed up for their unrealistic loans. We blame Edward Liddy and Timothy Geithner. We blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh; they blame the New York Times and Jon Stewart, who in turn blames Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer. For a while, Saddam Hussein was a convenient guy to blame. Then we blamed Bush and Cheney (still do). Now we’ve got Obama, who’s actually said he’ll take responsibility for the economic mess, but not without first refusing the blame for it. (Can you blame him?) But how quickly we’ll forget and lose our capacity to forgive him for not fixing it fast enough or well enough. He won’t escape the blame, either.

I’m not exempt. It’s always the rotten fault of my clients. Or it’s the French. And of course my kids, they’re to blame for the train wreck they’ve made of my life. And then there’s De-facto. It’s his fault, after all, that I got pregnant in the first place.

See? It is cuz of Papa.

Jan 21 2009


Yesterday afternoon, we duded-up and joined a group of Americans invited to watch the inauguration at the Hotel de Ville. The Mayor of Paris hosted the event, the outgoing U-S ambassador was there; it was pretty posh. The grand ballrooms of the Hotel de Ville are rarely open to the public – I walk by the building almost every day, but I’d never seen the interior – and the gilded ceilings and ornamented chandeliers added to the privilege of the moment.
Three large video screens broadcast CNN’s coverage of the event. People crowded around them, shaking their heads, clasping their hands over their mouths, applauding. Some, ultimately, crying. For me (and others), the money quote: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” When Obama said this I heard people gasp. It’s pretty extraordinary, how he can be fierce and firm, but open hearted at the same time.

Afterward, we drank champagne and mingled. I did the obligatory look-around. It’s the curse of a cocktail party; we feel compelled to survey the room, take in the crowd, see if there’s anyone interesting, or someone we know or need to know. Looking for Jim Bitterman, maybe. That’s when I saw her – my old friend.

She and I were really close at a time when I was wilder and more independent, before I had children, before we had a falling out. There was no particular drama about our parting, no harsh, angry words (at least not out loud). There just came a point when one of us stopped calling the other, and the other didn’t object. Three sides to this story: hers, mine, and the truth. And the truth is we probably just wore each other out. The details aren’t important, except to say that I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over four years.

I didn’t think before approaching her, and since my presence in front of her was an obvious surprise (even a shock) she had no time to think, either. This was a good thing. What followed was, admittedly, a slightly awkward conversation. We both made polite inquires about the key life categories: work, health, family, romance. By the end of our 10-minute exchange, it felt a bit more genuine – I wouldn’t say it was “just like old times,” but there was a slight warming between us. Well, I don’t really know how she felt, but I know I wasn’t pretending.

You know, it takes a lot of energy to hold a grudge. I guess in the spirit of that moment, inspired by the words of our new president, I let the residue of my anger and disappointment fall away. I was glad to see her.

Neither one of us made any overture to be in touch again. I wouldn’t mind rekindling our friendship, but I also know sometimes these things just run their course. It’s best to move on. Who knows? Time will tell. What matters, I realize, is that I’ve found yet another reason to admire President Barack Obama. He makes me want to be a better person.

Jan 20 2009


Today, there’s hope, I told her. She was pressing her fingers one-by-one into a bright pink glove, deliberately missing one of the fingers, the middle one, so she could hold up her hand and play out one of her favorite ruses: “Look Mama, which finger is missing?” Unimpressed with the weight of my proclamation, she ignored it.
Today there is hope, I told her again. It’s an historic day, a day I want her to remember. Anyone alive today will talk retrospectively about this day for the rest of their lives, remembering the ground they stood on when they witnessed history. Every generation has its “Where were you when…?” questions, many of them commemorating a tragedy. Where were you when you learned JFK was shot? When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated? When the World Trade Center collapsed? It makes for existential late-night conversation, sitting on the floor of the dorm-hallway, or a surefire opening for personal disclosure at a dinner party of strangers.

But instead of venerating a disastrous moment, the question provoked by today’s inaugural events will link us to an positive and optimistic memory, marking a pivotal moment in our lifetime where a nation peacefully and deliberately turned away from being powered by fear to being driven by hope. This is what I want her to remember about today. I want her to remember to hope. So I told her again, today there is hope.

“Hope for what?” she asked, “Candy?”