Aug 10 2014

We Leave at Dawn

I take it back. All that mush I wrote in the last post about our little adventure. The family car tour across the United States is taking its toll. Too many consecutive days of too many consecutive hours crushed together in an automobile makes it hard to forget about the misery of too much proximity. The constant call of the kids from the backseat, the packing, unpacking and packing again of the suitcases, the smushed stale or soggy sandwiches from the cooler, the cracker and pretzel crumbs all over the car, the overall organization required to keep a disorganized crew on the road and heading east. Nothing like a little adventure to tire you out.
on_route
Yes, we’ve seen some amazing places and reunited with old friends who’ve taken us in and given us luxurious shelter, tasty and nourishing food and a healthy supply of hooch. Yes, we’ve seen the beauty of America. There have been remarkable moments that I’m sure we’ll never forget. But there have been just as many moments when I wanted to lean over and strangle those who purport to be the people I love most in the world.

~ ~ ~

We left at dawn (again). That meant being up before sunrise, packing the cooler, nudging Buddy-roo, the professional sleeper, and her sister to wake up enough to walk themselves to the car, but not to wake so much that they’d stay that way for the first leg of the long drive. My mother-in-love, despite our admonition, set her alarm to coincide with our early departure to help us with the last of our preparations. Clothes had been selected and placed in the car in the girls’ designated seats – Buddy-roo has claimed the long back seat of our roomy 4WD Buick Enclave and Short-pants is content to read in the middle row bucket-seat – and all other luggage, except the dopp kits, had been stowed in the vehicle the night before.

My mother-in-love, wrapped in her white bathrobe, watched us with eyes both delighted for our visit and dismayed at our departure. Though our 5-day stay with her in Santa Fee is the longest place we plan to stay stationary on this trip, it didn’t seem long enough. She is in fantastic health for a woman in her 80s, spry and alert and more active than most women my age (me, for example) so chances are extremely good that I’ll see her many times again in our lives. But I’m still mindful of the surprises life throws at us when it comes to our parents’ generation, so I always take in a deep-breath mental photograph of her whenever we part company. She waved goodbye with that happy/sad face and even without a stitch of make-up on, and her still-sleepy eyes, she was as pretty as I’ve ever seen her.

Earlier, in Arizona, we’d driven along Route 66, where we’d stopped for lunch and achieved a classic roadside diner experience. In New Mexico, we took Route 56, which hovers beside the Santa Fe trail, another classic American passageway. The risks of a national route are slower traffic and multiple stoplights, but the reward is a distinctly scenic ride with charming windwheel_sftrailtowns, authentic roadside watering holes, kitsch historical points of interest and, to De-facto‘s delight, cheaper gas.

We saw the sun rise on the Santa Fe trail, and made good time – better than we expected – on the road much less traveled. The lack of trucks and traffic in general – we went for miles without seeing another vehicle – and the awe-inspiring western vistas kept us from killing each other on the 12.5 hour drive, our longest of the trip. Well, 12-hour drive; De-facto permitted us a 1/2-hour lunch break at a picnic table near the Edwards County, Kansas Sod House and Museum, apparently 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco, a veritable halfway point for our US trip, in both distance and duration. His rush: he’d made a hotel reservation in Kansas City. He had a fantasy about putting the girls to bed and going to a Casino with me on his arm.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” he kept shouting, from the driver’s seat, in his best mid-western hillbilly accent. Mostly to tease me, since I have expressed on many occasions my lack of enthusiasm for the activity of gambling, and even more for the despairing spirit one encounters in an American casino. The windowless tombs with all the flashing lights, the unrelenting noise of the slot machines and the longing, lonely look of people hoping for that elusive big win. But De-facto’s a charmer and it’s a rare thing to see him part with his money so frivolously, so how could I not agree to go along?

I was raised with James Bond movies so I pulled out a dressier dress from the bottom of my suitcase and opened my jewelry bag for the first time in weeks and even donned my nude patent-leather heeled sandals. After so many consecutive days in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, standard road trip wear, it felt good to get duded up a little. We were the best-dressed people in the joint. Everyone else was in jeans, or even shorts and tank-tops – as the Kansas City casino crowd is slightly different than the Casino on La Croisette in Cannes. We may have looked good, but we bet poorly, so it took us about an hour to lose all our chips. We were up by 60% early on, but De-facto was having too much fun watching me throw the dice to cash in. “We’re just hittin’ our stride,” De-facto said, in his gambling-guy accent. I was rolling lucky at the craps table, for a while, but it was the Black Jack that really did us in.
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The next day wasn’t quite a dawn departure, but we couldn’t dilly-dally. Friends were to congregate to meet us at a bar on the north side of Chicago at 7:00, so we needed to make another long slog, this time from Kansas City to the Windy City. There were non-interstate routes that might have been more appealing, but because we hadn’t gotten up at dawn again, we had a tighter schedule. It was raining. The highways weren’t as well kept as those we’d traversed previously. The truckers taunted us by pulling out and passing each other, making it hard for us to make up any lost time. We ate leftover pizza from the night before, rolling along at 75 mph.

~ ~ ~

In pretty much every state, it’s possible to find a radio station that’s a time machine, propelling De-facto and me back to our youth. One song after another, each tethered to a high school memory. Journey, Aerosmith, The Cars, Van Halen, Bad Company, ACDC, Tom Petty, Creedence, Steve Miller, Heart, The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin. You know this kind of station, the classic rock station. You kind of hate it because it’s so dated, but you kind of love it because you know the words to every song. And after you’ve been penned up in a box on wheels for six-plus hours, and you’re just a little bit punchy, it’s easy to get a bit over-excited. Rock’n’roll anthem Stairway to Heaven is a song that used to make me groan – I worked at a rock radio station and it was overplayed – but I caught myself cheering when I heard the opening chords. De-facto lowered the volume long enough to tell the girls that this was a rock’n’roll classic, commanding them to listen to the lyrics. Then he cranked the sound back up and we sang along, word for word.

“This isn’t rock’n’roll,” Buddy-roo said.

“It’s a ballad at the start,” I said. “Just wait, it’ll kick in.”

When it did, we were singing along at the top of our lungs and dancing like head-bangers in our seats. Buddy-roo, disgusted by our behavior, took the fleece she’d been using as a pillow and wrapped it around her head to drown out the noise and to keep from having to look at her stupid parents. This only inspired us to continue. She did get the last laugh; De-facto and I were so caught up in the music that we missed our exit. We had to turn around and backtrack to get back on the right road. It’s happened to us several times on the trip. We get lost in the music, and nearly get lost.

~ ~ ~

“Girls, look! We’re about to cross the mighty Mississippi!” De-facto, our own Clark Griswald, shouted it exuberantly, his fist in the air. Short-pants barely raised her head from her book, Buddy-roo re-arranged her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, their tandem sign language for who cares. I’m afraid they are saturated with national parks, 4-H styled museums the_Beanand points of interest, or just tired of being hitched to our wagon on this cross country tour, that their best defense is to ignore us. But we keep nudging them along. At every stop, Buddy-roo begs to stay just one more day. The most recent host becomes her new best friend, and that stop, the best on the trip. Both girls moaned about being dragged into Chicago, until they discovered the fountain and the Bean at Millennium Park. We couldn’t linger too long, though, as friends were expecting us at our next stop, in Ohio, and the heavy city traffic had already slowed us down.

We’ve been on the road twenty days, crossed ten states and we’ve still many miles to go. But the Atlantic draws near and another city beckons, with more family and friends waiting to see us. The road calls, whether we like it or not. Tomorrow, once again, we leave at dawn.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
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“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
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San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Aug 5 2013

Out of my Depth

She threw her towel on the sand and sprinted to the water’s edge, halted only briefly by the shock of the cool water at her feet before she plunged forward, into the ocean. A frothy wave rolled directly at her, pushing her back toward the shore with its force. She faltered, but stood up and dove into the next wave, and again and again until she was on the other side of the wall of waves that break at the shore’s edge. Short-pants‘ fearlessness in the ocean has always surprised me. She is tentative about many things that other children dive into effortlessly; getting her to ride a bicycle requires cajoling and bribing. But the water calls to her, her courage summoned from the rhythm of its fierce waves.
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I stood on the shore watching her bob in and out of the water, alternating her practice of diving under the wave and surfacing on the other side, or chest-bumping it defiantly as it rolled toward her. The tide was high and that made the surf fiercer. Several times during her ocean frolic I’d called her and motioned her to swim back into the lifeguarded zone, away from the rip tides on either side. I’d tried to do it playfully, but still, I was watching her like a hawk.

Later, back at the beach house – friends from Paris had rented it for two weeks and kindly invited us to spend a few days there with them – I told Short-pants she seemed fearless in the surf.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “I love to see you bold and daring like that.”

Her shoulders expanded, pride filling every cavity of her chest.

“And I also want you to be safe in the ocean. It can be dangerous.”

“In other words,” said my friend – she’s Irish and has no problem telling it like it is – “your mother was terrified.”

~ ~ ~

This is the maternal – the parental – conundrum. We want our kids to seize the world around them. We want to encourage their adventures and help them build skills, strength and confidence. But there is so much that could go wrong; so many dangers to meet, some mere obstacles to overcome, others truly life threatening. We want to steer them, guide them through the minefields of growing up without being over-protective. We know they need to fall and fail, and pick themselves up and recover. But what if they’re on the edge of something they might not recover from?

De-facto and I like to think we found the middle ground. We didn’t childproof the electric sockets; we just taught the girls not to stick their fingers in them. We didn’t put up a gate, we showed them how to crawl backwards down the stairs. We never safety-latched our cupboards; we moved the seriously toxic stuff to higher shelves and designated cupboards they could play in. When one of them fell or stubbed a toe, we’d wait a beat, and walk, not run, with words of passive concern: “You’re okay, aren’t you?” At some point we realized that Short-pants thought “okay” meant ouch because we’d said that to her every time she hurt herself.

We might have been, perhaps, a bit cavalier about her boo-boos. We thought it was just a flu, that thing that turned out to be a brain abscess, putting her in the ICU for six weeks. If there was ever a time that I felt I was truly in over my head as a mother, this was it. No parenting book can prepare you for tending to your child in a hospital, still, you can’t panic, for their sake and for yours. But even after all that – especially after that, not wanting to live in fear or make her feel fragile – we try to take bumps and bruises in stride, and despite my own terrifying memory of those moments when we thought we might lose her, to keep sending her out into the world with all its dangers.

~ ~ ~
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We stood together at the water’s edge, admiring how the morning sun cast our shadows long and lean. They were nearly the same length, demonstrating that at 12 she is fast approaching my height. There were only a few other early swimmers in the water. De-facto was at a different part of the beach, taking his own surfing lesson. Buddy-roo, who’d excelled spectacularly in boogie-boarding the day before, had opted out of this morning’s beach excursion, choosing to take her opening swim in the pool back at the house.

Short-pants and I waded hand-in-hand into the water, it seemed to take forever to get beyond the shelf of the sandbar. We charged at the waves, stepping over them until they lapped against our mid-sections and then we began her favorite game of calling out “Under!” or “Over!” – one command for diving beneath the wave as it passed, the other required confronting the white foam surf and letting it splash in your face. It felt like we were the only two people in the world, frolicking in the surf, my daughter and me, laughing at the waves, diving over and rolling under.

I kept an eye on the shore – or so I thought – to keep within the distance of what had been pointed out as the safe zone. But too late I realized we’d succumbed to the longshore drift. Not only had we slipped sideways down the beach, we’d also drifted out from the shoreline. In fact, I could no longer touch bottom, which meant Short-pants couldn’t either. The current was stronger now, and I knew we were entering a danger zone.

“Why don’t we swim back toward our towels?” I said. Just then a wave pummeled us. She winced, her hair splayed over her face, spitting the salty water out of her mouth. “Take my hand, let’s swim together.” I could feel the current tugging us the direction we didn’t want to go. I pointed us diagonally, not to swim directly against it, but I knew we’d have to work hard to swim back in.

The shore seemed forever away. The waves relentless, hurling themselves at and over us. The sound of the surf was a constant roar. The swimming was hard but we were making slow progress. I also knew how quickly the surf can tire you out and I couldn’t gauge how tired Short-pants was already. We’d actually drifted into an area where there were a few surfers, one of them within shouting distance. Here was another human being, just ahead of us, and he had a floating device. I yelled to him. The surf was too loud, he paddled away.

“This is a good time to swim on your back,” I told her. We turned and kicked together. I held her hand tight; I would not lose her in this surf. It would not happen, not on my watch, the thing I dreaded, that terrified me most about her love of the sea. Moments earlier I’d marveled at the beauty of the waves cresting in front of us, blue-green walls of water, arcs perfect and smooth, like a picture window into the sea. That should have tipped me off, we’d never swum out far enough to see waves like that before. It was my fault, I’d gotten lost in the rhythm of the waves and the pleasure of being side by side with her, dancing together in the ocean.
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Another surfer came within sight. We’d made headway and he was a bit closer. I called and waved, he looked up and turned his board our way. Just this gesture buoyed me. I tugged Short-pants, who was still paddling and kicking beside me – she was holding her own – toward him. Just before we reached him, my foot hit the sandy bottom. Three steps later, Short-pants could stand too.

“Okay?” he asked, seeing that we’d stopped swimming and started walking. I nodded, and thanked him. But I was thinking, ouch, that was a little too close.

We trudged onward toward the beach, still fighting the force of the waves as they withdrew from the shore to slide back into the ocean. Finally we made our way to dry sand.

“Mama, I think you overreacted, waving and calling to him for help.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the surfers in the water. “We were way out there.” Her jaw dropped as she noted the distance. I also pointed out how far down the beach we’d drifted from where we’d left our towels. “In a situation like this, you don’t realize how tired you can get, fighting the current. If there’s someone nearby, it’s a no-brainer; you should ask for help.”

We sat on the beach to rest and talk about what happened. I played down, slightly, how dangerous it might have been; I didn’t want to spoil her love of the waves. But I didn’t dismiss the danger completely. A little fear – or rather respect – for the ocean is something I was happy for her to acquire. Not that my respect for the ocean had kept us from getting in trouble, but maybe it’d had gotten us out of it in time.

“I didn’t realize,” she said. On her face, full recognition of the danger, and then the relief of having escaped it.

I’d succeeded at not panicking her during the swim back to shore, but I didn’t want this to trigger a phobia about the ocean. We walked up to the beach cafe at the top of the dune, for hot chocolate and a croissant, after which I suggested we go back into the water to do some wave-jumping before we called it a morning. She hesitated. I could see the fear taking its grip. I insisted. This experience should make her smart about the ocean, not scared of it. I took her hand and walked with her into the water. We didn’t go out as far, we weren’t quite as daring. But we got back on the horse; we rode the waves again.

~ ~ ~

blue_bird_on_yellowIt wasn’t until much later in the day, after all the vacation-house group activities – the late breakfast, the food shopping, lunch, cleaning up for the evening’s barbecue party – were finished that I had a few moments to be alone. Standing in the shower, I ran through the morning’s events, re-hashing everything we did, letting myself consider what could have happened. I leaned my head against the cool tiles, the water cleansing the salt and sweat off my body, and I wept.

I’ve managed not to beat myself up too much for this little adventure. I should have known better – I do know better – but I was in over my head, literally, forgetting my own best advice. Maybe it was useful, I told myself, that this happened. What terrified me earlier in the week was her nearly cavalier attitude about the waves. Each time I’d motion for her to come back between the lifeguards’ flags, she’d comply, but not without a groan. Making this error together, I could help her out of a pickle she might not have escaped on her own. This gave her a taste of the ocean’s formidable strength and why you shouldn’t go out of your depth, unless you know what you’re doing.

Of course, even when you think you know what you’re doing, you can still get in over your head. You can be an experienced swimmer and still make a mistake and get caught in the rip tide. Just like you can be an experienced mother, and still get out of your depth. The ocean is humbling that way, and so, I guess, is motherhood.


Jan 7 2013

Finding Out

We stepped one foot at a time into the harnesses and pulled the bulky belts high around our waists. The tall men buckled us in, pulling straps tight, double-checking that the fit was snug. Everyone was handed a helmet and a pair of suede gloves, worn from use by many hands pressing down on wire cables. Because the electricity was out, we couldn’t watch the introductory video. Instead a guide, who spoke English fluently but with a dark velvet accent, did his best to show and tell us what would happen. hiking_in

We piled into a safari truck, wearing all our gear, helmets already a necessary protection from knocking our heads against the roof during the bumpy ride that took us to from the lodge to the drop-off point. A 15-minute hike brought us out to a cliff overlooking the ravine. We climbed on to the first wooden platform, where the ropes connected to our harnesses were clipped to the guide wire at our feet.

Never at any moment was anyone not fastened on to something, either to a line on the ground, attached to the rocks by giant pins, or, in the moment we’d come to experience, on to the long wire that stretched over the open gorge. A large pulley unit was the primary device, that’s how you rolled along the cable to the platform at the other side of the ravine. But there were always two other clips in place, for security. We’d been told this was one of the safest places for Canopy Touring, and that seemed to be the case.

“Are you ready?” the guide would ask when you were sufficiently latched on and secure for your ride across the abyss. “Enjoy!”

All you had to do was step off the edge of the platform and gravity would take over. A flight through the air, only the sound of the mechanism driving along the wire and the water cascading over the rocks below. Fifteen seconds of flying freedom.

~ ~ ~

Our friends had been to Swaziland before; it’s an easy weekend trip from where they live in Maputo. Things change almost immediately after crossing the border from Mozambique. The hills and mountains rise around you, and the land shifts from dusty brown to a palette of greens. A house just outside of Mbabane, the capital, was offered to us from a friend of a friend, one with many bedrooms that easily accommodated our two families of four. We did a big shop on the way there, the kind when you buy way too much food that you never eat because you end up going to restaurants for more meals than you expected. We spent the week taking hikes, visiting various tourist attractions, like a revived glass factory or an eccentric candle-making workshop, and then, of course: zip-lining at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
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Our friends’ kids had already tried zip-lining, and loved it, so we knew the activity was child-friendly. But our girls have a different appetite for adventure, and it’s not as vigorous as ours. A little cajoling is almost always required. I knew for this to work it had to be well positioned to garner their enthusiasm.

It was Short-pants I was most worried about. She is thin and spindle-like, slightly uncoordinated. She’s aware of her lesser athleticism and though we work hard to keep her moving and confident, it’s her nature to avoid physical activity. I fully expected her to resist, until I thought of her role as Grandpa Joe in last year’s school play, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. After drinking the fizzy lifting drink Grandpa Joe sings a duet with Charlie called, “I’m Flying.” This was my entry point. We talked about how zip-lining might be a bit like that scene in the story, when they’re flying through the air. She said she was game. I couldn’t tell if she was truly interested in this adventure, or if she was just humoring me. Or maybe she was afraid of disappointing me. I worry about that, sometimes.

That morning, as we donned sunscreen and sneakers, it was Buddy-roo, though she’d been instantly enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed, who came to me with her head bowed.

“I don’t want to go.” She can make her voice so little and glum when she wants to.

“It’s natural to feel nervous before you do something new,” I told her, “I bet you’re going to love it.” I was wondering, myself, if I was going to love it.

“I’m worried about my sister,” she said, trying to think of another excuse. “What if she gets scared and freaks out?”

“You just worry about yourself,” I told her, though I wondered, myself, about the very same thing.

~ ~ ~

There were eleven zip-lines zig-zagging along and across the ravine, eleven chances to sail through the air. This meant it wasn’t a one-time shot. Once you started, you were committed. There was no way to turn back.

While Buddy-roo masked her fears by whining about her sister, Short-pants stoically adjusted her harness and her helmet, listened attentively to the guide as he reminded us of where to place our hands – and where not to put them – while gliding along the cable. We’d all gotten a lot quieter as we approached the first wire. I looked over at Short-pants and she bared her braces in a broad smile. If she was feeling frightened, she wasn’t letting on.

De-facto went first and I followed; we both had cameras and were charged with capturing images of the kids and cheering them in as they came across the ravine after us. Our friends stayed to the rear, ready to coach the youngest members of our squad as each one took their turn. The first zip-lines were shorter and the drop below them not too steep – like having two starter flights to get used to the feeling and to figure out how to use your glove, with its leather palm, to slow down at the end for a good landing.
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It wasn’t hard to get a feel for how to speed and slow yourself along the cable. The guide at the receiving end was there to catch you if you barreled in too fast, or to coax you if you’d slowed too soon to make it all the way to the platform. He unfastened and quickly re-fastened my ropes to the ground cable and I quickly turned to snap shots of each child, as they came into view, one at a time. Short-pants, long and lanky even with her knees bent, glided and landed effortlessly on the platform. She raised her arms in a jubilant victory pose. Buddy-roo sped in a few minutes later, smaller and more compact, but fast and confident and just as exhilarated by the ride.

As we followed the rest of the course, the cables got longer, stretching over the wider, steeper parts of the gorge. The hurdle of how-to-do-it had been cleared, and both girls were beaming. Much like our family hike last summer, the self-esteem of both daughters expanded, visibly, after two hours and eleven rides dangling from a cable strung out over a deep ravine. I’ll never know if they really wanted to try zip-lining, or if they were just afraid not to. But I’m reminded of how important it is to encourage our children to try to do new things they might not (at first) believe they can do. How else will they find out?


Feb 29 2012

Scales of Parenting

The sun slipped up over the horizon as we pulled away from the country house. We were up before dawn and quickly in the car, dressed in full ski gear. Our drive to the mountains was three hours, a little more, moving from Autoroute to Route Nationale to mountain roads, gray ribbons weaving through steep fields of snow. The Massif Central is not France’s most chic ski destination, but it is the right terrain for our little skiiers to get their legs. They’re in training for a full-on-week-long-rent-a-chalet-ski vacation in the French and Swiss Alps, hopefully next year.

On the mountain, the continuous hum of the ski lifts became our soundtrack. Blue sky arcing over us meant uninterrupted sunshine and perfect temperatures. Little feet tucked into tiny boots snapped into bindings on short skis, midget-sized poles at their sides. They looked ready to ski.

Short-pants shuffled across the snow, one ski at a time, especially awkward in all her gear. It was more like walking than skiing. Encouragement was required.

“Look at you! That’s it! You’re doing great! You’re skiing!”

She inched along. Her spirits seemed fragile – she was at once thrilled to be so equipped and engaged in the snowy sport we’d been previewing for days, and at the same time terrified of the burden upon her to turn down the mountain on two such narrow boards.

Buddy-roo was already essing from side-to-side on the slope, slowly but steadily reacquainting herself with the actions required to steer and stop on skis. The four of us made a long – though slow – parade of snow plows down the slope. It was a start. But now we had the real challenge: the lift.

Last year, the girls debuted on skis and we ramped them up to use the big chair lift, though not without a bit of stress and scurrying at the last minute to be sure everyone was in place to be scooped up by the giant mechanical chair. They had some experience with other ski lifts, T-bars and J-bars, too, but never with a poma-bar. But that was the only kind of lift at this resort. Sometimes the lift lines could stretch out across the bottom of the slope, not because the resort was so terribly crowded – it wasn’t – but because of the succession of little kids or beginner skiers falling of the lift and needing several tries to get situated on the bar.

Even as an experienced skier, I’m always a bit nervous the first time I use a ski lift. Especially the ones that drag you up the hill. The moment it jerks forward can catch you by surprise. Or it can move so smoothly that you get lazy and forget you’re not supposed to sit. Next thing you know, your ski tips are crossing and you’re horizontal in the snow.

Our foray into the land of the poma lift was not without a few errors, but quickly both girls mastered the art, and moving them back up the mountain was the least of our issues.

After one run, Short-pants wanted to take a break. She’d adapted to the skis with more difficulty than her sister and it was apparent she was enjoying it less. She looked adorable, her little legs not much thicker than the ski poles in her hands. But you could see she was miserable, which was maddening because we’d driven three hours and invested in ski rentals and hotel reservations and we’d toted all the gear from the car to the lodge – that in itself a production – and we just wanted her to try it a bit longer.

The earlier enthusiastic encouragement, more like coddling, took a different tone: cajoling.

“Oh, come on.” I said. “We’re out here, the sun is out and the sky is blue. It’s a gorgeous, perfect day to do just what we came here to do: ski! You can’t give up now.”

She could. Give up now. But she didn’t. She’s an obedient child so she suffered another series of snowplow turns down the gentle slope of the bunny hill. But she spent more time on the hill than on her skis. Halfway through the run, she headed the direction of the lodge, situated at the mid-point of the hill.

“Can I take a break?” she said, sniffling. She was on the mend, or so we thought, from a cold and she’d been sniffling for days.

I cajoled some more: uplifting, you-can-do-it logic and don’t-give-up-yet appeals to keep her at it. Just one or two more runs before we stop, to cement the muscle memory, to get her skiing with a bit more confidence before she stops to rest.

“I want to stop.” She was on the verge of tears.

I didn’t know which way to go on the scale. Tone it back down to coddle, stay steady at cajole, or ratchet it up to command. We’d only started. She couldn’t be tired. It wasn’t cold out – if anything the sun made it too warm for her ski-coat. We’d just had lunch. There was no good reason to stop.

“No,” I said, more firmly. “You’re going to ski. That’s what we came to do and there’s no reason to give up after only one run.”

Now she was fully in tears.

This is one of those parental dilemmas. How hard do you press your kids to go beyond their initial limits? When do our gentle and respectful requests get put aside because the situation requires a firmer tone? And when is the right time to scale it up to the strongest command?

I remember my early skiing career, being miserable and freezing cold, standing in a line in a group lesson, making-a-pie with my skis ad nauseam until my little thighs were burning, and wanting to do nothing but klunk through the lodge and have my mother unlace my boots and let me sit by the fire. But my parents commanded me to gut it out, despite the wet snow and cold toes. It’s true that I came to love skiing. In high school I adored the ski club’s Thursday-night excursions. Later I spent most winter weekends skiing in Vermont. In my thirties, I even took a winter off to be a ski-bum in Switzerland. If they hadn’t pushed me, I’d have missed out on all the fun.

Short-pants turned her skis down the mountain and pressed on, falling often and finding it harder and harder to get back up. De-facto took over the coaching, but her heart wasn’t in it. At the bottom of the slope we promised that she could ski right to the lodge on the next run.

Which she did. And sat at a table on the terrace and watched us tour up and down the wide trail with her sister, who was now getting confident enough to obtain speeds that merited her new nickname: the Bomber.

I’d ski over and visit Short-pants every other run, notching down to cajole as command obviously hadn’t worked. What became apparent, at each visit, is that she wasn’t so against the idea of skiing as she was truly feeling ill. Her cold was not on the mend, and she was slightly feverish and even a bit dizzy. No wonder she couldn’t get excited to ski. She was permitted spectator status the rest of the afternoon.

Later, at the hotel, she went horizontal immediately while De-facto cooked up a dinner in our kitchenette. She was truly sick, and I was feeling horrible about how I’d commanded her to ski earlier.

“It’s okay, mama,” she consoled me. “I’ll ski tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” I coddled. “Only if you feel like it.”

We took it easy the next day, but she rallied. Her skiing grew steady and she spent more time upright than on the ground. We let her sit on the terrace whenever she wanted. She counted the skylights on the building and read the signs outside the shops and restaurants.

On the third and final ski day, it was Short-pants who didn’t want to stop.

“One more run!” she said, wearing a wide grin. This provoked a long groan from the Bomber who was tired of skiing and ready to stop. I guess it paid off, this time, to scale things down.