Sep 11 2011

This Mad World

All week I’ve been mad at the world. Blame it on the rentrée, which each year feels more brutal than the previous. There is the onslaught of work that I should have done over the summer, let alone the full-time job that is getting the kids back-to-school, with the long lists of books and supplies that must be acquired precisely as indicated and the organizing of their extra curricular calendars for the year. Mothers all over the city nod at each other knowingly; a friend with whom I had a rushed lunch answered the obligatory question how goes the rentrée? with a long sigh and an eye-roll. She didn’t have to say a word.

It’s not only what you have to do, it’s how long it takes to do it. I want to minimize Short-pants’ weekly trips to the conservatory, so I went over in person to try to schedule her classes back-to-back on the same day. But nobody there could help me. An hour later I left with an email address and no certain solution. Buddy-roo is begging to take tap-dancing classes (thanks to Ann Miller and Kit Kittredge) so I rearranged several appointments in order to arrive at the dance school early enough to assure her a place on the list. That’s when I learned I that the tap-dance teacher doesn’t participate in the standard inscription process, I needed only to phone him to sign up. (Thanks for putting that in the flyer.) Once again, a reminder that I’m an outsider here. No matter how long I’ve lived here or how much as I’ve figured out how to System D on some fairly challenging tasks, I’m still slapped in the face, each and every year, with some shrugging French person who explains, “C’est comme ça.” That’s just how it is.

Sent home in Buddy-roo’s cahier de correspondance, a letter from her new teacher outlines in detail the punishment system within the classroom; no mention is made of the learning objectives or the educational climate. Oui, but it’s a traditional French school, I tell myself, why should I expect anything different? And why am I in France? These are the geo-existentialist questions that come to mind every year about this time.

So I grumble about town, muttering under my breath while running inefficient errands and waiting in line to discover I didn’t need to, feeling like the clock is ticking away while I manage all these angry details of what I wish was somebody else’s life.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, my mother was visiting us in Paris when some crazy men flew those airplanes into the big office towers. Like most everyone, I can tell you exactly where I was that day; just like my parents could for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or my grandparents for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Short-pants was just shy of two months old, my mother had come over to meet her. She was so tickled to see and hold that little baby; I think she’d given up on me in the grandchildren department and it was a pleasant surprise to have a new little grand-daughter but also to see me with that child in my arms. I’d sworn off children in high school, after a particularly terrorizing babysitting incident. She’d begun to believe I really meant it.

That afternoon we strapped Short-pants into her stroller and ventured out to show my mother an artist’s squat on rue de Rivoli. I’m not sure that she was so curious about the squat, an old ceilings, ornate molding and marble fireplaces that had fallen into disuse and was then inhabited by artists who collectively managed the building. The city shrugged its shoulders and allowed them to stay, letting eccentric culture win over law-and-order and by-the-book. My mother was much amused by it, each room a working space of a different artist, some set up very typically as an artist’s studio, others more daring and whimsical, showing their eclectic work under black light or with rhythmic music to set a mood. The squat is still a working studio and public gallery; in those days it was open to the public only once or twice a week.

When we returned home, I went to my computer to check email, ignoring the news item that flashed on the welcome page, something about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I dismissed it as a light-craft error, and didn’t investigate further. Short-pants was still asleep from the walk home, I wanted to take maximize my time on-line. It was not until my sister, on a business trip in China, phoned and prompted me to turn on the television that we learned the severity of this “freak accident” which wasn’t a small plane and wasn’t an accident, either. It had all been done very much on purpose.

In the days that followed we sat, stupefied, around our television watching the crumbling towers, the jumpers, the ash and dust everywhere, the heroic fireman and rescue workers, the grieving families. It was all so horrible, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away, as if I had to see it repeatedly to believe it was true. While Short-pants nursed at my breast, I’d watch those two towers fall, again and again while her little paws beat against my chest. What kind of world had I brought this little child into? Listening to the new reports as events unfolded, and subsequent anthrax scares and the fear that gripped us all so fiercely, I thought to myself – and probably out loud to De-facto – that the world had gone completely mad and that this was the beginning of the end. Would we spiral down to dystopian religious wars and Short-pants won’t live to be ten years old? I remember caressing the soft flesh on her arm, touching the tip of her nose and fingers and toes and wondering what the world would be like in 2011. Would any of us survive? I really thought the world was about to implode in a series of well-timed terrorist plots. The outlook was pretty bleak.

Three years later, when Short-pants fell sick and I was desperately searching for the reason, I wondered if breastfeeding in front of that repetitive, horrible news had put the mysterious abscess in her head.

There was, on a positive note, such a tremendous amount of good will shown toward the American community by the French on 9/11. Families opened up their homes to stranded air passengers, people in the neighborhood who knew I was American would stop me and ask if I knew anyone who’d been in the towers or at the pentagon or on any of the planes, expressing their condolences to our grieving nation. Despite the horror of what happened, it produced an element of hope from that outpouring of thoughtfulness and solidarity, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in France. It was probably safer here, and people were being awfully considerate.

~ ~ ~

I had the best intentions of taking the girls to the 9/11 memorial service at Place du Trocadéro. It rained steadily all day – and poured even harder at exactly the time we would have had to leave – so I opted to stay home and commemorate the somber occasion with the television news. Neither one of them could have any memory of the event and it’s not a subject we’ve talked about other than as an explanation for why it’s necessary to practically disrobe when we go through airport security. They fired questions at me as the coverage of the ceremonies droned on in the background: Why did the plane fly into the building? Why are those people covered in dust? Why are you crying, mama?

I couldn’t really explain why. I wasn’t trying to spare them any pain that might come from the knowledge of what happened that day. I simply couldn’t find any words, or enough words, or the right words to convey what was lost that day. All those lives, lost. All the potential memories that will never happen because a parent disappeared that day, lost. The dignity that accompanies liberty and privacy, the compassion for foreigners and (what I thought was) our signature religious tolerance – if not lost, is seriously diminished. I long for the optimism we knew prior to September 11, 2001. Even though life eventually returned to a normal rhythm, something I couldn’t imagine at all during those mad, panicked days immediately following the event – it’s still not the same. It never will be.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. If anything, I was given extra time with my mother, who was grounded in Paris, and with other close family friends who happened to be visiting France that week. We huddled together and comforted each other, watching the news, non-stop. With the exception of the nuissance of airport security, my day-to-day life is more or less unscathed by 9/11. Listening to the victims’ family members as they took turns reading out loud the names of those killed, one by one, I felt pretty silly. Silly for my exasperation about the rentrée and all its inconvenient errands. Silly and sorry for those harsh words I snapped at De-facto the other night or my impatience with the girls when they pick at each other. It all seems just plain silly when you think about what these families have endured. Just like Short-pants’ hospital scare put everything in perspective, so does this occasion give me pause to remember – and relish – how absolutely lucky I am, with all of my luxurious burdens, to be alive and breathing in this mad, mad world.

Sep 4 2009

Second Day of School

All at once, the streets are busy. Those late August mornings, tranquil and traffic-free, fade into an end-of-summer reverie. The city re-awakens and stretches her sidewalks to welcome the armies of small school-children carrying larger-than-laws-of-physics-should-allow backpacks. Their parents walk in step behind, sleepily pressing little ones along – or march brusquely in front, dragging sluggish children forward toward school courtyards that lay quiet and dormant all summer and now shriek with the collective noise of playing children. Everyone’s a little foggy, still operating on summer-speed, shaking out the cobwebs, rousing slowly to the reality of the rentrée and the routine of school and work. No matter the degree of excitement or trepidation any child might have about the return to school, the parents wax enthusiastic with proclamations of how great it will be to return to the groove of learning new things and seeing school friends. Inside, these same parents are thinking, “free at last.”

Who could imagine that after a nearly jobless (and rather agreeable) summer, an assignment would fall into my lap, a project coinciding with the advent of the first day of school? And that then at the last minute, De-facto’s assistance would be necessary too? Another nomination for negligent parents of the year award; we both missed the first day of school.

It wasn’t Short-pants we were worried about. She knows the drill, having been through more than one rentrée at this establishment. But it’s a new start for Buddy-roo, who not only changes schools this year, but gears up for the rigor of the first grade after lollygagging about in the ecole maternelle for three years. It’s the real deal for her: new school, new teacher, new classmates. The strong hand of one of her favorite adults would ease the transition, but she’d have to make do with the soft touch of her big sister.

The decision was not so difficult; De-facto and I cocked our heads to one side or another and shrugged. We do value the importance of rituals, and this is the kind of occasion that deserves to be ritualized. But when it was her real and true very – I mean very first – day of school, when she started at the maternelle, we were both there. We’ve helped her through lots of firsts. Isn’t it time she starts toughening up a little and handling her own? Aren’t we doing her a disservice by coddling her through the initiations of her life? And won’t accepting this work allow us to cover her tuition? (I think that was the clincher.)

“You tell her,” I told him.

Buddy-roo took it well. “Okay,” she said, “but will I still get a goûter?”
Assured that her snack would remain intact, she didn’t seem to mind. It may have helped that this all came down about the same time that I opened up the two shopping bags of school supplies to sort them between her and sister. Remember the excitement – a satisfied anticipation – of having new school supplies? Though these implements are used for schoolwork, not necessarily a favorite topic, when they’re just out of the package, unused and colorful, and the smell of a new school year rests upon them, it’s all good.

De-facto wondered why I hadn’t taken the girls with me to shop for the school supplies, speaking of rituals. Here’s why: the liste de fournitures provided by the school is so onerous, so entirely detailed and specific – down to the exact centimeter of each ruler (which must be made of transparent plastic and not metal) that it’s just plain easier to do alone. The first year I was tested in the art of buying school supplies, I took Short-pants with me and we fumbled around the paper-supply aisles of the BHV department store. “What’s this mean?” I’d ask her, but she had no more experience with French school supplies than I did. After reading the list again and again and getting nowhere, I finally nabbed a salesperson to help me decipher it. Short-pants stood by bored and restless. There’s nothing to choose. It’s all just a checklist of boring items: types and colors of pens permitted and not permitted, one of these being specific brand of fountain pen, refillable only with blue ink, notebooks made of a particular style of graph paper, paintbrushes of a stipulated size. Erasers are to be white. Blank paper sold in large pochette envelopes must be double-checked, to be sure it’s the correct centimeter size. It gives you a head-ache just to read the list, let alone to acquire its contents.

But it was all worth it when the living room floor was plastered with fresh packages of paper and colored pens and pencils, erasers, rulers, folders and books, and the girls jumped in a jubilant dance. Each time I pulled out a new item, a gasp of delight. “Wow!” marveled Buddy-roo, “I get my own glue-stick?”

Later I was busy drawing up a professional org-chart to navigate the girls from our house to school via several hand-offs – our early morning departure required Ricky and Lucy taking over the breakfast shift and then delivering the girls to the hands of other good friends in the neighborhood who have kids enrolled in the same school – the girls took inventory of their new supplies. And then one of those moments when it’s all justified, when the hassle and annoyance of being saddled with an tedious list of school supplies vanishes: “I’m so excited,” Buddy-roo said, wiggling her hips, “I’m going to school so I can learn how to read!”

That’s about as Alleluia as it gets, if you ask me.

The choreography of their first day worked flawlessly, thanks to reliable neighbors in the morning, and our trusted babysitter in the afternoon. An exuberant report that evening disclosed the details of the day: talk of old friends and new friends, who sat where and why, first assignments and new cahiers, and a whole slew of paperwork for me to fill out not once, but twice (but that’s another post) and in general we encountered a pair of enthusiastic students.

De-facto and I made up for missing the first day of school by walking them to school – the both of us, together, which is rare – on the second day.
walk_to_schoolBuddy-roo, having survived day one, knew the ropes. She fastened her shoes, hoisted her pink backpack on her shoulders, and sped down the stairs ahead of her sister. We walked along, the four of us, a family in full force, one amongst many in the army of families making the morning march to school.

Once there, we lingered, catching up with the other parents, waiting to watch the girls make their way into the building, waving back at them until the last possible moment. Then, hand in hand, De-facto and I turned and walked toward home, free at last.