Aug 5 2011

Precious Evenings

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.

Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.

Jan 23 2010

All Blue

Her entire mouth was blue. Lips, chin, cheeks, and tongue – all blue. The initial shock (Is it blood? What is it?) was replaced too quickly with anger when I realized what it was. Ink. It’s always ink. Why her school insists the kids use a stylo plume is beyond me. It’s not easy to write with – especially if you’re a lefty, like Short-pants. It makes a huge mess on the paper and covers her hands with ink every time she does her homework. But it is required.

I looked down at the floor. The beige carpet, selected for neutrality and alleged durability, colored with huge blotches of blue. There were blue stains everywhere, on her bed sheets, on the comforter cover. The final punctuation on the wall: a perfect handprint, in indigo.

I’d like to tell you I laughed out loud and took her over to the mirror and showed her how silly she looked, like a creature from an Avatar tribe. I’d like to tell you I calmly asked her about the blue ink covering face and hands and clothes and most of her bedroom floor, inquiring, gathering data, seeking to understand what had happened. I’d even like to tell you I counted to ten, releasing my anger so that if I had to scold her, at least I could do it in a sensible, thoughtful way before asking her to disrobe for an impromptu bath.

But no. It’s a classic parenting scenario. And I blew it.

I yelled at her. Sharp, angry, questions: “What’s on your face? How did it get all over your hands? What were you doing?” And when I saw the blue on the carpet, I started firing ballistic missiles.

She exploded, of course, into tears. Repeating, again and again, I’m sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry. Breathless crying. I didn’t spank or hit her, but I suppose I struck her with the violence of my words. It took an entire bath for her to settle down.

“I hate myself,” I said later, tossing in bed, unable to sleep, “I should know better.” De-facto turned and spooned with me, wrapping his arm around me, pulling me close. “You have a lot on your plate right now,” he said, “don’t add this.”

There’s always a bit of stress when we have a job, but this week put me in a spin. To get the kids fed and dressed – let alone to get myself prepared to get out the door – and scurry them to school and sprint to the metro to make it to the meeting in time was a real grind. I only have to do this once or twice a month. I’m in awe of mothers with regular jobs who handle this every day, week-in-week-out. Three days in a row floored me.

That I am going away for two weeks (or more?) adds fuel to the fire. It’s less about getting ready to go and more about getting ready to be gone. Lots of little details: paying bills, organizing child-care, anticipating school assignments, leaving little notes for De-facto. The unspoken stress about the trip ahead, well, that just gets folded and packed in the suitcase with the rest of my clothes – all of which really could use an ironing out but I’ll deal with that – with all of it – when I get there.

I’m too often stretched to the max like this, squeezing in to the short days all the things that must be done so that when 4:30 rolls around, honestly, I’m not ready for them to be out of school. I want a few more hours of solitude. I’m not ready to scramble off and get one and take her here and go back to get the other and take her there and have you done your homework or please finish your dinner or get in the bath or brush your teeth. It’s not like they just take orders and say “yes, ma’am.” There is a fantastic production of lollygagging and goldbricking and stretching out of tasks on their part. I may need to move the night along chop-chop – so I can finish that project or prepare for tomorrow’s meeting or write the post that’s been seeding in my brain all day, or hell, just have a few minutes to sit quietly, read, watch a movie, or simply collapse into bed – but that doesn’t mean they will comply.

It’s not that they are so terribly misbehaved. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do! They’re playing. They are marvelously distracted by the present, by the current thought that just crossed their mind or by the toy they just happened to see in front of them on their way up the stairs to do something else, like, for example, that fascinating coloring book – the one with the ink on the pages and a stencil to scratch it off, and wow, look what happens to it when it gets wet. (The source of all that blue, we find, was not the stylo plume, but a high-tech coloring book.)

In order to let them play, I have to juggle what role I want to play.

I did not audition to be a nagging, scolding parent. I idealized a version of me: firm but friendly, rigorous but respectful. Strict but sassy. I usually start out that way: questioning, encouraging, firmly polite rather than barking orders. But sometimes things spiral down. There are those days when I just don’t have the patience, or the feelings are simply too strong, when I hear my own voice shift from being stern and admonishing to just plain hollering. The momentary release brings a very temporary satisfaction, but then it feels worse. And it doesn’t solve the problem the way I’d hope for my girls to learn to solve problems. I’m willing to “talk hard” as we say, but I hate it when I have to yell.

So we sit down to sort it out. I ask questions and listen. I tell them how I feel and what I need. There are tears. Some half-hearted smiles stretching into honest-to-goodness ones. Apologies extended all around. Hugs. Promises. Resolutions.

Then later, when it’s quiet, I go upstairs to check on them, leaning close to sweep the hair off their sleeping foreheads and to plant kisses on their spongy cheeks. Each has her own distinct smell, one like cookie-dough, the other like corn silk. In their slumber, they are oblivious to me and to the world outside their cozy attic bedrooms. They breathe rhythmically – even snoring lightly – sleeping still and sweet and I see how perfect they are, blue fingers and all.

Dec 20 2009

The Spectacle

An unusual cold spell and snowfall in France have not deterred us from our weekend social calendar. “Party on!” is the holiday mantra. We even ventured out of our arrondissement to attend a brunch hosted by friends who live just outside Paris. When the suburban-line RER train emerged from the tunnel we were surprised with a white cover of snow blanketing the ground. Our bravery – going beyond the city limits – was rewarded with this classic Christmas vista.

Our hostess, a friend, colleague and maman créative, also blogs about mothering. Her forte is inspiring creativity in her children. She practices what she preaches; just behind the Christmas tree was a mind-map she made with her children, a group exercise in deferring judgment as they brainstormed on their decorations for Noël. She and her partner have a family recomposée with four children, so adding Short-pants and Buddy-roo made for six kids. It was a big crew. Talk about bravery.

Except they all got on marvelously. It helps that their new apartment as a “kids wing” so there were two rooms down a long hall where they could tumble into private play. When the first course was served, they all came when called and seated themselves around the “kids table.” After devouring their servings of foie gras in oven-baked brioche (oui, ahem) they scrambled back into the bedrooms and picked up where they’d left off. We took our time finishing the sauterne.

While the second course was being dished up, one of the children was made envoy to the main room, touring our table and placing a ticket in front of each adult, pronouncing proudly the upcoming event, “Un spectacle!”

Un spectacle. Words that every parent receives with pride and horror. Great! There’s going to be a show. Shit! There’s going to be a show.
Even the most creative mothers (and fathers) harbor a deep hidden dread of the never-ending spectacle. My parents once sat through a laborious production of Christmas Around The World, a two-plus hour exposé of holiday customs in something like 56 countries. This must be a parental rite of passage.

Somebody taller than five feet suggested that the show should start after dessert. That gave us the main course, the cheese and the tarte tartin – and all accompanying beverages – to fortify us for the performance.

I tried to be discreet. When the kids joined us for the next course, I called Short-pants over to the table to remind her of something we’ve learned to practice in our spectacles at home. “Don’t forget,” I told her, “A good spectacle has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” De-facto agreed, “And you want it to be short. Always leave people wanting more.”

“And don’t forget the Salut!” Wisdom from the maman créative, “that’s the most important part.” Of course. Play up the taking of bows at the end. That is why she’s a creative mother.

The production, we could tell from the title, was the story of a discouraged caterpillar and a mocking butterfly. At least there would be some tension, necessary in good theater. The challenge was it had to be performed in the dark, which meant being staged in the only room in the apartment that had no window, the bathroom. After dessert, we four adults were squeezed in the shower and beside the washing machine, hoping that our advice about theatrical structure and brevity had been taken into consideration.

The spectacle involved puppets and flashlights and softly spoken snippets of French I could neither hear nor understand. But when the final lines were pronounced and bows were taken, I applauded wildly. As one does.

That was yesterday. Today Ricky’s in our kitchen cooking the Christmas goose (you have to say it with a British accent). In a rare Martha-Stewart moment, Lucy made knife-rests out of cinnamon sticks for the table. The girls are holed-up upstairs, cooking up something of their own; perhaps there’s a spectacle is in the making? No sign – yet – of that big doll, but I’m sure she’s gonna show.