Mar 22 2012

Just a Minute

It happens unfortunately rather often these days, a lone gunman goes postal, sending a battery of bullets into a crowd full of innocent people. It’s horrible; a dreaded disbelief grips me when I hear this kind of news. There’s an extra groan when it happens at a school or involves small children. Then there’s proximity, when it’s closer to home it’s a real wake up call. Bad things can and do happen. It could have happened right next door.

On Monday De-facto made lunch and turned on the television – his ritual moment for absorbing local news – and we learned of the fatal shooting of four people, including three students, at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Given that we live in one of the Jewish sections of Paris, it’s easy for me to imagine this happening. Almost every school in our neighborhood has a plaque posted near the door, often adorned with flowers and tri-color ribbons, commemorating the young students who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps. The maternelle school just behind our apartment building, where Short-pants and Buddy-roo both started, is often selected to host the somber ceremonies of remembrance for government dignitaries. The school our children attend now has a Catholic flavor – though in typical French style you can opt out of the religion part – but I could imagine them being at the wrong place and the wrong time here in our very own neighborhood and being caught in the crossfire.

We didn’t mention anything to the girls. That wasn’t a deliberate decision. De-facto left for a business trip shortly after lunch that day, and I was busy preparing to leave for my own voyage d’affaires the next morning. I still had to prepare my valise, and with De-facto already gone it also meant attempting to get Buddy-roo ahead on her homework, leaving notes for babysitters and organizing the next day’s wardrobe and backpacks for an early-morning-drop-off at a neighbor’s house so I could make a train that left Paris before school started. In the flurry of activity, I didn’t bring it up.

In my hotel room on Tuesday night, I read and watched the news, with poignant images of the vigil in Paris and mention of a minute of silence in the schools across France. I was only in Luxembourg, a short trip on a fast train, but all this made me feel too far away. I do appreciate the break from my children, except when something happens that makes you want – need – to put your hands on them and hold them close.

Last night I dropped my small suitcase – my mother’s old little rollaway gets a lot of use – in the foyer and was rewarded with the stampede of bare, just-bathed feet down the stairs and young girls pummeling themselves against me. That welcome home hug is worth every travel hassle you have to endure, and it felt especially comforting this time.

I beckoned them to sit on the couch with me, one on each side, and I turned back and forth, asking about the two days of their lives I missed – how the geography test went (Buddy-roo had to map out the mountain ranges of France), how was the spelling coming (Short-pants has nearly memorized 12 pages of spelling words), and then my big question.

“Did you have a minute of silence at school?”

Lots of nodding yes.

“Did they tell you what it was for?”

Lots of nodding no. Then the two of them talking at me at the same time with different stories. After settling the debate about who would go first, here’s what I learned: One teacher simply said that this was something being observed at all the schools in France, so Short-pants had no idea she why she was participating in a minute of silence. Though Buddy-roo’s teacher referred to the event in Toulouse, it was obvious that she still didn’t really understand what had happened. One of her classmates was cited as a source of additional information; you can imagine the facts were jumbled, though reported to me with enthusiastic certainty.

I don’t want to conjure up unnecessary fear in their young minds about a lack of security at school or in the neighborhood. I don’t want to impose the weight of a terrorist act on them. To speak to children of such atrocities feels unfair, like I’m robbing them too soon of their innocence, tarnishing their sheer belief in the goodness of people and the world. But to shield them from what happened seems equally unfair, especially if it means they hear snippets from someone else, someone ill-informed or ill-equipped to inform them with the age-appropriate sensitivity.

I asked them if they wanted to know the reason that there was a minute of silence in school the day before. They’ve said no to questions like this before, for instance when I was explaining the birds and bees to Short-pants and at some point I said, “Is this enough, or do you want to know more?” With just a few seconds of reflection she said, “That’s enough for now. You can tell me more later.”

They did want to know why, so I told them about how a really crazy guy, someone not right in the head, had taken out a gun and shot at the people in front of a school, how the moment of silence was to honor the four people who were killed, to think of their families who were grieving. Of course I was bombarded with whys, and I did my best to explain in simple terms the idiocy of religious and racial violence.

“But it’s all the same God,” said Short-pants, “what does it matter?”

Then a barrage of questions about guns. “Why do people have guns? Why were guns even invented? Why would someone take a gun to a school, and shoot children?”

I couldn’t come up with a good answer, at least not one I believed myself. “That’s another reason to have a minute of silence,” I told her, “so that maybe people will ask themselves just those kinds of questions.”

This morning after dropping the girls off at school, I stopped at the nearby café where parents who don’t have to rush to work gather every morning and catch up over coffee. I brought up the minute of silence, which met with mixed reactions about how the school and the teachers had handled it. One parent referenced interviews with French psychologists saying that there’s no reason to burden young children with this news event. But how can you avoid the inevitability that they’ll hear about it and be terrorized more by what they don’t know than by what they do know?

For a minute, I wondered if I did the right thing, explaining it to the girls? I guess I made a choice to respect my kids rather than protect them. There’s probably no single right answer to that question. I just wish it was one we didn’t have to ask.


Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

Living in France, one is obliged to become expert at paperwork. There is no way to avoid it. At the start of every school year, I fill out no less than four pages of paper per child, each with the same basic parental and caregiver contact information. (I actually photocopied these sheets to use next year – even scanned it to my desktop – but I bet they change all the forms.) Every year, the same copies of the same vaccination pages from the cahiers de santé are required, stuffed and sealed in special envelopes. You’d think this would be a document that could live in a file cabinet – or a computer – in the nurse’s office. Mais non.

At every turn there is more paperwork. This could be said of any country but it seems particularly burdensome in France. Yet this is where we have chosen to raise our children. Both girls were born on French soil and both possess French birth certificates, a document with its own administrative quirks. After a baby is born, you have up to (and no longer than) three days to go to the local town hall, the mairie, to register the birth and obtain an acte de naissance. The hospitals dog you to attend to this detail in a timely fashion, one wonders if they are penalized if you fail to do so.

When you need to use this birth certificate, say, three years later, in order to enroll your child in the école maternelle, it’s no longer valid. You must return to the same mairie (in the arrondissement or town where the clinic or hospital was located) and take a number and wait to be called up to the desk where you make a request for a newly signed and dated version. This updated document can be used to procure whatever additional privileges you’re seeking, as long as you use it within three months, before it, too, is deemed invalid and another trip to the mairie is required.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo are both eligible for a special kind of made-in-France-resident-card, but De-facto and I haven’t gotten around to addressing the paperwork for it. The girls were born at the American Hospital of Paris, which is actually in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it’s a bit of a schlep to out there to get a new copy of their actes de naissance. A neighbor told me it was possible to avoid the trip by making the demand on-line, and so this week I finally I forged through the website and found the form for an acte de naissance and filled in fields and scanned my own papers and pushed the button. A big red exclamation point informed me my application could not be processed unless I could provide a copy of the original birth certificate. I was able to dig out previous outdated originals and scan and attach them to the application. But isn’t it all a bit ludicrous? The very document I wanted to obtain was unobtainable unless I had a copy of it.

Maybe it’s just me, fed up with calling around to arrange this and that, weary of the forms and protocol I must fill out and follow, tired of jumping through hoops. I want to be done with the school meetings and sign-ups and last-minute school-supply runs. I feel like I’ve become a PA to my children, and I’d like to get on with my life. Plus a last-minute trip to the states – my mother’s house has finally sold and we must empty the last of its belongings – puts a press on my agenda and makes me impatient with the inefficiencies that seem to be standard practice here.

The viola teacher from the conservatory called to remind me to get an attestation d’assurance, proof of insurance, in order for Short-pants to be given an instrument. I asked her if we could have same viola as last year; it was actually a very good instrument and more importantly I already had the attestation de valeur, so getting the insurance would be easier.

“Non,” she apologized. Short-pants had grown and needed a bigger instrument. I asked if she could provide me with the name of the fabricant of the new instrument. “Mais, non,” she said, unapologetically, she didn’t have it. She didn’t know the maker or the value.

I explained that my insurance company couldn’t insure the instrument unless they knew the value. And they couldn’t know the value if I didn’t have a certificate from the maker. I’d need the name of the luthier so I could obtain this document, in order to obtain another document, in order to get the viola.

“I’m not allowed to give you the instrument until I have the attestation d’assurance,” she said.

“But I cannot get insurance,” I said, “until I have the instrument, or until you tell me the make and the exact value.”

I mean, she’s been doling out these instruments to students for years now. Doesn’t she know this?

The good news is that my insurance agency is a cozy neighborhood bureau that I’ve been going using for more than ten years. The very reasonable woman who works there immediately appreciated my conundrum and agreed to write a very general attestation of insurance for an instrument of the same value as last year’s. Then, she told me, once I could give her the real details of the new instrument, she’d adjust my policy issue a more official attestation.

Within 48 hours her letter arrived in the post, so I sent Short-pants off to her lesson with the paperwork in hand and she was given her new viola. After the lesson, the teacher nabbed me and dragged me into the office. I’d wanted to avoid any administrators, hoping I could get the official certificate first. I was leaving the next day for the week-long trip to the states, so I was deep in departure-preparation panic and not so interested in the time I would lose attending to a bureaucratic detail like this, a detail that was not at all a priority on the day before a voyage.

The viola teacher deposited me at the office and conveniently slipped away, leaving me to fend for myself across the desk from the austere and humorless functionaire who’s job it is to handle the insurance certificates for probably hundreds of music students. This can’t be fun, it might be Sisyphean, which would explain her comportment. A close inspection of the letter revealed its lack of specificity and gave her reason to remove her glasses and set them down before informing me that she couldn’t let us take the instrument if I didn’t have a more detailed letter of insurance.

I explained, again, the predicament. I have no idea how to say Catch-22 in French, but if I knew, it’s the phrase I’d have used.

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

“I asked her, several times,” I said, “but she didn’t have the name, or the value.”

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving her my best French shrug.

“Well I cannot leave the instrument with you, then.”

I stood up abruptly and pushed in my chair. Short-pants looked at me wide-eyed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I said, “The requirements are impossible and all my daughter wants to do is play her viola!”

I think standing up did the trick.

She scratched “attestation provisionelle” across the top of the page in big dramatic letters, insisting I get a detailed certificate to her as soon as possible.

We walked out of that dim conservatory, squinting into the afternoon sun. Short-pants held my hand while I fumed quietly. It’s all such a waste of time. Shouldn’t each instrument come with its own attestation? Shouldn’t the conservatory have gathered this information? Why is it the mother’s job to do this paperwork? Did my mother have to do all this crazy-making organization for me?

A few blocks later, I stopped and knelt down in front of Short-pants. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with the lady at the conservatory. I could tell it frightened you.”

“It’s okay mama.”

“I’m a little bit on edge today,” I said. “Do you know why?”

“Because you have a lot to do before you go away?”

This was surely part of it, but it’s not the real source. All week I’ve been a bit impatient and emotional.

“It’s because I’m going to clean out the furniture and the final things from Grammy’s house, and I’m sad and nervous about it.”

“I understand.” She leaned in and hugged me tight. “But look, I got my viola, right?” She stepped back, raised the instrument case up into the air and smiled, victoriously.


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.


Aug 14 2011

The Cloning

I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.

In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.

I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.

I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.

“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”

Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.

~ ~ ~

“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.

Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.

Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.

Flat Stanley has been cloned.

Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.


Jun 13 2011

Behind the Curtain

“The tricky part is right here, after the storm in Kansas,” De-facto said, pointing to the creased sheet of paper that had been folded and stuffed in his back pocket, removed and unfolded, again and again. These were the set change instructions and they looked relatively simple, which was what worried me. He was in charge of the sets for the performance; he’d crafted and painted many of them, built the stage extension and choreographed the scene changes with the director. His crib notes made sense, to him.

I’d been in the audience the night before, the opening night of the school’s English section performance of The Wizard of Oz. I know it’s easy for proud parents to crescendo their praise to a distorted level, but I think I am not exaggerating when I report that the production was a first class piece of children’s theater.

A truly dedicated group of parents, affectionately named the Yellow Brick Road Crew, started the engine on this production way back in March. The director of the play, a multi-dexterous woman with talent and tact motored it forward with a professionalism that far exceeded her volunteer status. The rehearsals started as a Saturday morning activity. Then Sundays were added, then Wednesday afternoons, too, as the dates of the performance drew near. Lines were memorized by small, elastic brains, songs transposed and rehearsed until they could be sung by heart. Dance steps were choreographed, even practiced by adults in the café, trying to figure out how four kids might skip together arm-in-arm on a narrow stage. A week earlier, the dress rehearsal for their classmates was chaotic and choppy – as a first full run-through in costume with sets usually is – and even then, the teachers and peers were seriously impressed. But the real test was opening night, in front of a (paying) audience of adults, teachers and family members. The debut was a glowing success, acclaimed by all the spectators who were present, many I suspect, who had come with modest expectations. It was, after all, just a primary school play.

Except it was so much more. Yes, the sets were low budget, sheets of calico painted by harried (but artistic) parents and a few exceptionally obedient children. The lights (operated by a father in oven-mitts) and mikes were borrowed and jerry-rigged. The costumes were puzzled together on a shoestring budget (though brilliantly executed). But it was the actors who really brought the stage to life: twenty-some kids under the age of eleven, who’d learned not only their lines, songs and dances, but also memorized their cues for entering and exiting – no small feat because in order to give more children parts in the play, there were multiple actors for many of the roles: five Dorothys, three Scarecrows, three Tin-men, two Wizards. One actor would exit stage left, her replacement would appear through the center of the curtain at the start of the next act. Short-pants was Glinda in act two, after the house lands in Oz, and then the Scarecrow in act three. This called for a high-speed costume change during the song “We’re off to see the Wizard,” as Dorothy (played at that point by Buddy-roo) and the munchkins (played by a gaggle of kindergartners and first graders) danced on the yellow brick road.

Short-pants has a natural temperament to be the Good Witch of the North and there was a sweet and special chemistry on stage with her sister (who was truly lovely as Dorothy), but it was in the role of Scarecrow that she really found her stride. It was like she able to access the part of her that really is the Scarecrow, that slightly clumsy, brainy, loyal, lovable friend. During her solo number, as she side-stepped across the stage singing “I could think of things I never thunk before,” my throat got all lumpy and choked up and my eyes got a little teary.

The casting had been handled marvelously, every child had a chance to try every role (although we learned only recently that Buddy-roo refused to read for any part other than Dorothy). Then the kids were seriously coached. They weren’t just reciting their lines, the director had drawn each actor into his character. She’d guided, suggested and cajoled to help them breathe life into their parts. But she also got out of the way to let each child interpret the characters on their own, and let their creativity come out. The children were clearly having a great time. This was observable and palatable; you could feel how much fun they were having on stage.

I think most of us in the audience were in awe: of the actors, of the director and the transformation she’d alchemized, of the world-class musical parents, who did more than accompany the performance; their music was like a soft blanket underneath, supporting the kids without ever upstaging them. We were in awe of the people behind the scenes, committed parents who were sorting costumes and props, working lights and projectors. (De-facto even donned a green wardrobe to blend in with the cast while hanging scenery.) This was a real show.

With a good performance under their belt, a bit of feedback (speak louder, project to the back of the room), the kids seemed confident and excited to have another go for the final show. My role, on night two, was to sit with the littler actors and help to keep them quiet between their munchkin scene and at the point when they’d all wrap themselves in green satiny capes to become the citizens of the Emerald city. But the guy who’d partnered with De-facto on the sets the night before expressed a desire to see his child in the performance, so I volunteered to switch duties with him. He briefed me and it seemed clear enough. Besides, I was working with De-facto. We work together all the time.

“After shaking the curtains for the storm,” De-facto said, “put out the props and then you have to run to blow the bubbles for Glinda.” My eyes were glazing over as I was reading through his set instructions, trying to make sense of the timing. Much of what we had to do happened between acts: changing the background scenery, placing or turning a painted cardboard tree on the stage, putting the witches legs out under the house; but it had to happen quickly and at the right time. In some cases, the only cue to help me was the previous line in the script, so I knew what I had to do, I just wasn’t always sure exactly how long before I had to do it.

The curtain shaking (“shake them hard,” he’d said, “but not so hard that you knock over the sets,”) went well and before I knew it we were blowing bubbles, a pointless act, really, as my little bubbles hardly flew far enough on to the stage to be seen and the giant-bubble releaser he was blowing through only seemed to work when he was practicing with it backstage. It was a minute later that our friend, the guy who’d worked with De-facto the night before, snuck backstage and said, “where are the legs?”

The legs! I ran for them, slipping and falling, toppling Dorothy’s suitcase under the prop table. We managed to push the legs out under the set of the fallen house, fortunately in time for the moment when the wicked witch turns to them and tries to pull the ruby slippers off and they recoil back under the house.

At least I’d messed up on the scene with my own kids. But I didn’t want to mess it up for any others. My confidence shattered, I pestered De-facto for the rest of the show, “Now? Do I do it now?” It was comical, how the two of us were running around changing sets and props. At one point we were holding the curtain back to create a great-and-powerful shadow effect for the wizard and I noticed the heavy (and possibly dangerous) canister of helium at the edge of the prop table, on the verge of falling onto the floor where it very easily could have rolled out on to the stage. I couldn’t reach to move it, the shadow of my arm would have been visible to the audience. I pointed to the table and mouthed to him, “the helium” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “What?” he mouthed back, fumbling over the table, touching every item on it but the helium can. Mouthing unintelligible words back and forth, our faces wrinkled in masks of confusion and frustration. If we could have spoken, we’d surely have been screaming at each other. “What?” “Grab the helium can for Christ’s sake!”

A frenzy of activity between each act, and then the lull before the next set or prop change, during which we’d stand around laughing hysterically at ourselves. I mean, we’ve produced some complicated events for our clients, but here we were scrambling to keep up. It was the Wizard of Oz, after all, a story we both knew by heart. How hard could it be? Then all of a sudden, the act would finish and we’d be scrambling again. At one point a costume crisis – key elements of the wizard’s garb went missing – had us running around like chickens with our heads cut off in search of a turban hat and the sequined cape, a panic which made De-facto late for one of his cues.

Having been in the audience the night before, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d missed the cue on the legs. If you weren’t seated in one of the front rows, you couldn’t even see them. At least they appeared in time for the moment they were most needed. I think our crazy panic during most of the show was contained back stage. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew what was happening on stage was another fantastic performance. The kids were awesome, each one of them giving something of themselves to the audience, in a poignant song, a creative gesture, a comical dance or an ear-piercing scream. What a gift they gave us, our little thespians.

What a gift, from the Yellow Brick Road Crew, all the time and attention given to our children so they could have a real theater experience, filled with all the hard work and risk and exhilaration that come with acting.

What a gift, to the parents. Despite occasional complaints about lost weekends and schlepping to all the rehearsals – even for those of us who were involved only on the periphery, it felt like it took a lot of time – this production brought us closer together. We bonded. I got to know people I didn’t know before, and the ones I knew, now I know them more. I have developed a deeper respect and affection for the other parents at the school; all it took was a make-believe storm in Kansas to help me see that all these amazing people have been there all along, right in my own back yard.


Apr 9 2011

Standing Up

“Four bad things happened today,” Short-pants announced when I went to pick her up at school one day last week.

I resisted the urge to re-direct her to what was good about the day – an evaluation method I use in my profession suggests a thorough inventory of the positives before listing the concerns – instead, I let her tell me everything she wants to tell me, in whatever order she preferred. I want her to develop the habit of confiding in me. Correcting her syntax about how she reports the day’s events won’t help to keep the channel open. We’re still years away from her sullen adolescence, but I’m planting any seeds I can.

The liabilities of the day were not so grave, for an adult. She even seemed to have them in perspective. They annoyed rather than upset her, although the boundary between those two territories is rather thin. Somebody – a boy who often picks on her – was pulling on her hood as they climbed the stairs. When she turned to ask him to please stop he gave her the French shrug: “I didn’t do anything.”

Later in the lunch line, two girls behind her tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned around, acted as if they’d never touched her. “It bothered me,” she said, “that they would actually think I didn’t know it was them.”

And so it begins. I’ve suspected she’s a target for teasing. And since teasing often leads to bullying, I wonder if that’s possibly what’s ahead.

The other two incidents were equally benign (and probably normal) on the scale of mean things kids do to each other, but the accumulation of wasted gestures and silly pretending put Short-pants in a bad mood.

“Why do they pick on you?” Buddy-roo asked later, when we were talking about it at dinner. “Because I’m an outlier, a bit of a loner,” she answered, matter-of-factly. I regarded her with that mixture of pride and confusion. How amazing that she can so coolly describe herself, and how does she know that about herself?

“Papa told me I might get teased a little and that would be why.” I’m glad she talks to De-facto about it, too. She’s getting feedback from two genders of sounding board.

A few months ago I purchased a book and tucked it into my closet, waiting for the day that it would seem relevant to pass on to her. This felt like it was the right day. Despite the fact that it is from the American Girl franchise, one that’s over-the-top merchandising horrifies and impresses me at once, it is a well-conceived text. Straight forward, plain language, esteem-building advice for young girls about bullying, being bullied or just observing the act. Short-pants is a bookish type, you can talk to her about anything, but if she sees it in a book, it reaches some understanding place deeper inside of her than simple conversation can penetrate. So whenever I want to help her out, or make a point, I find a book about it.

She read the title of the book, Stand up For Yourself and Your Friends, and squealed with delight, “American Girl!” She cares little about the dolls and their accessories but has devoured the books – which contain great stories portraying how girls in other generations have grown up. She ran upstairs and I didn’t hear from her for over an hour. She read the whole book in one sitting. And then read it again. She came downstairs standing tall and empowered.

I have been waiting – obviously, since I bought a book about it – for the days when Short-pants would be teased at school. There have been a few incidents, the perpetrator always one of a handful of predictably mischievous boys. But what disturbs me is that maybe the girls are starting now to pick on her, and when pre-adolescent girls start, they get worse. And when they get mean, they get mean.

Up until now, the fact that she’s so sweet and kind and a little quirky has seemed to amuse her classmates as much as us. She is a loner, but not because other kids didn’t ask her to play. She often refuses their invitations, opting to wander around the school courtyard on her own, making up her own poems and rhymes, plunging into her rich inner life. But there you find the catch-22. As she refuses, repeatedly, they cease to ask her. And the less she is “with” them, the greater the odds that they will turn “against” her.

Whether kids are the most popular in class, the geek, the jock, the brainiac, the chatterbox (that would be Buddy-roo) or the loner, there is no way to protect them from the backlash of their particular role. The popular kids will be envied and bad-mouthed, the jocks adulated in person but derided behind their back for their “lesser” intelligence, the geeks ignored but stereotyped nonetheless. Protection is useless; it’s even counter-productive. The trials of childhood graduate to those of adolescence and prepare us for the occasional cruelties of life. How else would we thicken our skin?

I know I can’t protect her. But I can help her to be prepared, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. The question is, how do I prepare myself?


Mar 17 2011

Bee-line

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.


Mar 2 2011

The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.


Jan 30 2011

The Auto-dictée

She was in a puddle on the floor. “I’ll never learn this!” The text Buddy-roo was trying to memorize had been in her assignment agenda all week, but somehow we hadn’t gotten to it. Her homework was already heavier than usual, it was all we could do to get through the obvious assignments, let alone a special one. With her 7-year-old level of knowledge, maturity and motor skills, writing out sentences and circling the subject and conjugating the verb takes a lot longer than you’d think. Add some math problems and spelling to that, and the night is shot. It’s a bit easier than it used to be, but it’s still a grind. De-facto and I take turns being firm but friendly about getting homework done, one of us taking over when we notice the other’s voice taking on that getting-to-the-end-of-my-rope edge.

An incoming email message coincided with our parental angst. A thoughtful father made an informal survey of some of the parents, wondering, “Is it just us, or has there been an increase in homework?” Within hours, a flurry of responses. I’m usually annoyed by group email conversations using reply-all, but this was different. I opened each message eagerly. Another parent drowning in homework. Another classmate of Buddy-roo’s spending two plus hours a night to get it done, like her. Another mother wonders why, with all this work, there’s also an auto-dictée. Another father wishes the time spent with his children in the evening wasn’t always spent dogging them to finish their assignments. What a relief to discover we’re not the only ones plunged into shock from the amped-up after-school workload. A few of the more experienced parents tempered the complaints, commenting gently that this particular year is a tough one for French school kids and we just have to gut it out. But the main message in this email string was clear: most of us are exasperated.

We’re not a tightly-wound gang bent on steering our children toward the grands écoles. Most of us (I think) are just trying to help our kids keep up. Or more important: not to be stressed out. And the message string wasn’t only a rant. The discussion was a heartening reflection on the parents, ultimately morphing into a back-and-forth of constructive solutions and possible responses. Do we approach the teacher and complain? If so how to do it? Individually? Collectively? What are the consequences? How do we understand her challenges? Will it make any difference? Or do we just persevere and wait for the year to finish?

Then a message from a harried mother, apologizing for hijacking the conversation, but could someone scan and send her a copy of the auto-dictée because her son forgot to bring it home. That was when it dawned on me, the way something can come to you too late, even though it’s been right in front of your eyes like a series of neon billboards. Auto-dictée? It’d been mentioned several times in the back-and-forth of parent emails. What was this auto-dictée?

Minutes later a message from someone’s father who’d typed in the text. “I’m sending it to you from memory,” he wrote. There was a weary tone to his words. “After working on it for hours with my son, I’m afraid I know it by heart.”

I called the mother of one of Buddy-roo’s classmates. Even while I was dialing the phone, I had a bad feeling this had something to do with that folded piece of paper in the agenda we’d been ignoring. She confirmed this, and explained the task: Unlike the usual memorization assignments where you have to recite a poem by heart in front of the class (I find this charming), the auto-dictée means to write out the passage from memory, without being prompted or having it read out loud first, as in a standard dictation. This would be a challenging assignment for Buddy-roo if we had started preparing earlier in the week. To begin to memorize it so she could write it unaided, on the night before it was due, left us little hope for success.

Buddy-roo stomped and cried, insisted that we were wrong, that the teacher said she only had to learn the poem, she didn’t have to write it from memory. Rather than fight her, especially this late on a Thursday night, I said, “Okay, let’s just learn it by heart.” I started to work with her, line by line, but it’d been a long day. I was tired. I was angry. It wasn’t going well.

“Hey Buddy-roo,” said De-facto, “Why don’t you teach it to me?”

She handed him the paper. He read the passage a few times and handed it back. Then he started, “Alors, les source…” and he hesitated. She prompted him. Each time he missed a word, she corrected him. She transformed into the teacher, guiding him through the poem. And when he’d finished, he said to her, “Now see if you can do it better than I did.” And she did. It wasn’t perfect, but she had the basics. We had no idea if she could write it from memory, but it was ten o’clock and you know what? That was good enough.

I did write a note to her teacher in the cahier de correspondance, explaining that we had understood the instructions of the auto-dictée too late, wondering if in the future she might give us more specific guidance on new types of assignments so we could help Buddy-roo to be prepared. In the end I wished I hadn’t. The note she sent back to me wasn’t very empathetic. She started with how I had incorrectly referred to the text of the auto-dictée as a poem. Had it been a poem, she wrote, it would have been in the cahier de poesie. (It was downhill from there.)

But hey, Buddy-roo managed to eke out a minimum grade on her auto-dictée, and even got a few words of praise from the teacher, despite her lack of preparation. She also volunteered, in a sheepishly sweet way, that I’d been right about the assignment. (That’s a first!) As for De-facto, he has no recall of the text he’d learned. But at least now he knows it’s not a poem.


Dec 13 2010

An Energetic Action

The homework routine is much easier for Buddy-roo these days. The tears and drama have abated. It’s still hard to get her started, but the resistance to starting is diminished. The reward for completing homework is clearly established and we’re strict about it, so the anguish we experienced during those first weeks of school has vanished, more or less.

She’s still pokey. There are a dozen preparatory rituals that must be enacted, pencils and erasers laid out just so. When she finally begins, we must be vigilant against distractions, hard because Short-pants forgets and asks her sister a question, or starts talking to me about something that peaks Buddy-roo’s curiosity and then her concentration (if you can call it that) is broken. Or Buddy-roo looks over at the Christmas tree and must go over to move her favorite angel ornament two inches to the left. She returns to her work and writes one sentence. Up again to retrieve that angel to bring it back to the table where the homework is happening. “The angel wants to help me.” Right.

I sit beside her and use my calm but firm voice. (Any calmer she ignores me, any firmer she cries.) “Do you think you can finish a line without stopping? Let’s try it. Now.”

I flip through her agenda to review the rest of her assignments. Two vocabulary lists to review for an évaluation the next day, plus studying a science unit about vertebrates, also for a test. What? (Brass horns swell in dissonant chord.) This is a lot, for Buddy-roo, to do in one night. She has a particularly tough time with vocabulary. It’s always baffling to me because whenever we start to prepare for one of these quizzes, it’s as if she’s never encountered the words before. They must go over them in class, in the context of the story or subject they’re covering, right? But it’s like her brain has no glue for these words. She has no recall of their meaning. At all.

So we have to make it a game. While she takes fifteen minutes to copy four sentences for another assignment – with calisthenics in between every three words – I cut colored Post-it notes into slices and write the vocabulary words on one color and the definitions on another. (This isn’t hurting my vocabulary acquisition either.) In the past we’ve drawn pictures and matched them to the words. One weekend De-facto made a store with all the items on the vocab list (using reasonable representations found around our home) and bought or sold items from her until she knew them all by heart. If you make her read the words in a book and tell you what they mean, she goes blank. Lay them out like a match-up game and she dives in.

We played the game again and again, and again, matching definitions to words, words to definitions. Some of the words just wouldn’t stick; we made up silly ways to remember them. Robust is busty and strong, solid, like Mr. Incredible. The word lutter, (which I thought meant to fight, but it’s defined in her school book as an energetic action) kept stumping her until we decided the two Ts together standing tall looked like Short-pants and Buddy-roo marching energetically in a parade. We three marched around the kitchen island three times laughing and shouting out “lutter!”

This morning she remembered it. Because we made it fun.

It makes me think about the things I intend to do in the next year. Finish that manuscript. Realize a new project with my colleagues. Polish-up my Spanish. Pick up my viola and play it again. Keep strengthening my core with pilates. I want to keep the priority list short, so it doesn’t feel like it does for Buddy-roo when she has twenty vocab words to memorize and only two hours before bedtime. And I need to make it fun. If it feels like slog, I won’t want to do it.

I want to minimize the slog in my life. I realize you can’t eliminate all of it, there’s some administration that has to be managed. But whenever possible, taking action – especially on the ideas I’ve been dreaming of – ought to be fun. What’s the maximum pleasure I can extract from doing things, rather than just striving for their completion?

My next step? Make it happen, but make it fun. It doesn’t have to be a battle. Just an energetic action.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Scott Belsky: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?