Nov 15 2015

Under Attack

I am not done with Paris. That conclusion I came to just over a week ago, when I was there on a last minute trip, a quick overnight visit provoked by an administrative errand. Usually I pack my schedule with lunches, drinks and dinners, taking advantage of the time on the ground to catch up with Parisian friends. This last trip I organized very few appointments. I’ve a lot of work at the moment and I didn’t metro_signwant to orchestrate every minute of my visit. I wanted to be in Paris with a bit of time on my hands. The way it used to be. Just being there.

Standing in line to board the flight, I cringed at the weather forecast: chilly, cloudy with showers. This was one of the main reasons for relocating to Barcelona. We craved a warmer, sunnier climate. The cold and gray of Paris can wear you out. But luck was with me, the forecast was inaccurate. The Paris weather was milder than predicted and the sun had only a few clouds to hide behind. Walking across the Pont Notre-Dame to the Prefecture for my appointment – one that had been assigned to me so I had no choice but to make the last minute trip – I took in the majestic vista of Paris’ bridges arching over the Seine, and all the familiar landmarks, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Conciergerie. No matter how many times I make the walk between the left and right banks, I am still struck by the stunning beauty of the city. Second only to the friendly upstate New York village where I grew up, this is the place that feels most like home. It was home, for eighteen years of my life.

~ ~ ~

Our try-a-year-in-Barcelona turned into two years (one was not enough to really get a full experience of the city and culture) which then turned into three years (it takes more than two years to feel at home) and who knows, now, how long we will stay. We’re set up comfortably, in a roomy apartment, walking distance to the school, a mere block away from a forested mountain that leads to a track where we love to run, bike and walk the dog. New friends aren’t as intimate or familiar as those we knew in Paris, but there is potential. I am not unhappy in Barcelona. Our life is lovely. But it isn’t what my life was in Paris. And I do miss that life.

De-facto was out playing basketball on Friday night and Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I heaped ourselves together on the couch with Winston to watch the an episode of our latest favorite Netflix series. It was a text message from a faraway friend that alerted me to the attacks that were unfolding in Paris. I plugged into news coverage of Liberation and the BBC and Al Jazeera. I scanned my Facebook feed to see which Parisian friends were online and sharing updates – partly to hearparis_runs their perspective, mostly to confirm they hadn’t been caught in the mayhem.

It was hard to go to sleep and harder still to wake up in the morning to the tally of dead and injured and the stark images of a vibrant city shut down by terror and bloodshed. When Short-pants delivered my coffee – a Saturday morning luxury – I pulled her into bed with me for a morning hug. It made me think of the days just after 9/11 when we were glued to the TV, the altar for our grieving. I was breastfeeding Short-pants – she was only two months old – and while I watched the news, I’d glance down at her little mouth seriously at work taking in nourishment, her tiny fists banging against me and wonder what kind of world we’d brought her into. Now, fourteen years later, I held her (considerably) taller body in a long embrace and wondered, again, what kind of world she was inheriting. How will this ever go away?

~ ~ ~

It’s remarkable how a network of friends reaches out to support one another at a time like this. I was desperately texting my Parisian friends on Friday night, unable to get to sleep until I’d heard from them that they were safe. Saturday morning I woke to a full inbox myself, messages from friends who weren’t aware that we’d moved to Barcelona, or who know I often go back to Paris and that we have many close friends there who might have been hurt. It made my heart grow. In the midst of this horrible tragedy, little pockets of kindness make all the difference.

Later, at lunch, I asked the girls what they thought about what happened in Paris the night before. They both had the same first instinct: to ask why someone would want to kill so many people with such violent attacks. I struggled to respond. How to convey the complexity of such a convoluted reasoning – the perfect storm of anger, hate, disenfranchisement and indoctrination? How to share my indignation, my fear, my grief, but without fueling their prejudice and creating the fear and hatred that only perpetuates a cycle of terrorism? How to tell them the truth without scaring the bejeezus out of them? I always tell them, “Be smart, not scared,” when it comes to dealing with danger. But is that enough to keep them safe from this kind of arbitrary violence? go_paris

I am relieved that my family and I are safely away in Barcelona, that we weren’t subject to the immediate fright of it, the menace of proximity to such a massacre. And yet a part of me is aching to be there in Paris, now, to witness for myself what has happened, to be there not only in spirit but in person, showing my solidarity with some of my dearest friends and with the city that was my home for so long, and in my heart, still is.

But are we really safer here? Any European city – any city at all – might be subject to the same terror as Paris. There’s nothing to do but return to our routines, taking it all in stride, just like we numbly take off our shoes and place our liquids in plain view at airport security, running through the motions of protecting ourselves from a mid-air terror, when simply sitting at a café with friends can be just as deadly. How do I explain that to my daughters?


Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.


Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

At what age do we start to tell our children about the terrible things that could happen? We try to keep them innocent for as long as possible, perpetuating stories like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage their kindness and fairness, wanting them to believe the world is a kind and fair place. We build a magic bubble around them so they can grow up feeling safe. I’m never sure if we’re investing in their optimism or shielding them from the harsher truth. Maybe a dose of both.

Buddy-roo thumped down the stairs for one last goodnight kiss while De-facto and I were watching a movie, arriving just in time to see the scene in which a bold manservant attempts to force himself upon a young maid, who, fortunately, manages to push him off her and escape.

“What was he doing?” she asked as I steered her back upstairs.

“He’s trying to hurt her, but she got away.” I didn’t elaborate, partly because I wasn’t sure how much of the attempted rape scene I wanted to explain to a not-yet-nine-year-old, but also because I wanted to watch the movie, not talk about it.

The next morning she descended for the morning cuddle – these are still happening – and after a moment of wordless staring at the ceiling and listening to the familiar morning sounds of cleaning trucks spraying water in the street and pigeons cooing outside the window, she brought it up.

“Why was that guy trying to hurt the girl in the movie last night?”

These are the conversations I wish we didn’t have to have, but I won’t avoid them. One of the reasons I’ve told my daughters how babies are made is so they know how to protect themselves. I can’t warn them to watch out for strangers, without telling them what strangers might do. They cannot defend themselves from an atrocity like a rape if they don’t know what it is or what to watch out for. I hate to frighten them, but I don’t want them to be in the dark.

I took a deep breath and explained that the mean guy was pushing himself on the young woman because he wanted to have sex with her.

“Why was she fighting him back?” Buddy-roo asked.

“Because she didn’t want to have sex with him.”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I explained how there are in the world some arrogant men – boys, too – who think it’s okay to force themselves on a woman. They think if she says no, she doesn’t really mean it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to ask.

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, you have the right to say no. Say it loud and clear, and then get out of there.”

I am lucky to have never encountered such a scenario, but I imagine it isn’t always easy to scream no and get out. The whole subject – whether its date-rape or an attack by a stranger – is much more complex and there is no one right way to escape. You’d want to protect your sexual dignity, but you also might have to save your life, if a weapon was involved. Difficult choices might be required. Things could happen.

~ ~ ~

An exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, C’étaient des Enfants, chronicles the story of the children who were deported to the war camps during World War II. A number of these children disappeared right from our neighborhood; almost every school within ten blocks of our house has a plaque to commemorate the children who were taken. Just a few streets away is the address of the apartment featured in Sarah’s Key, the story of a young girl separated from her family during the Vel d’hiv Roundup when, in the course of just two days, 8,000 Jews were collected and deported.

Last week I took the girls to see it. I could have waited a few days until school started and gone on my own or with De-facto. I knew there’d be haunting images, the kind that can produce nightmares. I knew I was putting a sad and frightening story in front of them, but despite the picture of horrific reality that would be revealed, I felt they should see it.

I had to explain, as we toured the exhibit, why only some of the children in the class photographs had stars sewn on their clothing, how in one case an entire class of students completely disappeared, how some families were surprised in the night and then separated and sent off to camps, how the French police cooperated while many neighbors turned a blind eye.

“How could they let that happen?” Short-pants asked, earnestly.

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could they, a modern society, allow a paranoid politician to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could ever have happened, and to such extremes. But it did. And not so long ago.

~ ~ ~

These days I read the news, and I must admit, some of it seems just as preposterous to me. For instance, it’s become commonplace for white-haired male politicians to sponsor legislation that has a negative impact on a woman’s right to reproductive health. A candidate who knows little about a woman’s anatomy, let alone the reproductive process – and who, remarkably, sits on a science committee – proclaims that a woman’s womb won’t allow fertilization if she’s raped. Another lawmaker proposed legislation that would criminalize miscarriage and make abortion completely illegal, without exception. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even suggested, that it could possibly be considered illegal for a woman to choose to end a pregnancy that was a result of a rape, this seems barbaric to me.

These social conservatives would insist a woman give birth to a baby that she never intended to have, whether the result of a rape or a broken condom, and that she cannot afford to raise. Yet they would cut a welfare program that would support her when she doesn’t abort, and they would un-fund an organization like Planned Parenthood which – except in the case of rape – might have helped her avoid the pregnancy all together.

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

I live in a country where abortion is legal, where a big mistake or a violating incident can be remedied. It’s not without angst – abortion is never an easy decision for a woman – but at least it’s without felony charges. If my daughters stay here, they will have the right to choose. But I fret about what’s happening now to women in the United States, how the rights our grandmothers and mothers fought for – my mother was a supporter of Republican Majority for Choice – like the right to make choices about our bodies, the right to obtain safe birth control, all these aspects of reproductive health that, incidentally, contribute to our economic health, that these could slowly be stripped away. How could we let this happen?

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could we, a modern society, allow paranoid politicians to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could happen. But could it?


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.


Oct 5 2010

Yeah, baby.

Buddy-roo pressed her pinky finger against her lip, “Preparation H!”

She and Short-pants doubled over laughing. They didn’t really understand the joke; you can’t find this product in France, neither of their tender bottoms have ever required treatment for hemorrhoids. But they giggled out loud because they know that it’s supposed to be funny; no doubt when they watched Goldmember with their father, this joke must have cracked him up.

What to do? Laugh at loud or react in a way that would hopefully discourage them from repeating this and any other lines they’ve learned from watching the film. I turned sharply toward De-facto and gave him the look. “What?” he said, “It’s a funny movie.” I guess there are worse films for them to see, but Goldmember is not first among the DVDs I would have selected for family viewing pleasure.

But what is a suitable video? A Disney film in which the mother deer (or bear) dies in the first scene? A film in which an elephant, who’s mother is also killed in the first scene, returns to the jungle to civilize the wild animals so that they live like humans? Barbie and her princesses, or Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or any of those films where the female character waits helplessly for a strong, handsome man to save her from peril and make things right? (Shrek attempts to dispel this stereotype, but it has to go up against an entire library of princesses waiting to be rescued.)

A greater concern – to me – is the violence that is has become an habitual part of Hollywood films. At least the relatively small amount of violence in the Austin Powers‘ films is so campy that it couldn’t possibly be a shock to a generation of movie-viewers accustomed to life-like murders, realistic Hollywood shoot-outs and car chases with miles of carnage left behind. Except that we don’t watch those gun-toting crash-bang films with our kids; Short-pants and Buddy-roo are plunked in front of the feminist-irritating Disney favorites, or more often, they watch the real classics. Last Saturday, De-facto and I got to sleep in while the girls watched Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau in Hello Dolly. Or the favorite electronic babysitter option: The Electric Company.

As much as we try to protect our children from violence, our world is violent and they manage see its violent images. If we happen to watch the television news while they’re in the room, it’s in front of them. If they look through the news magazines that end up in the bathroom, there are photographs of war and brutality. We try to filter the media that they take in, but we can’t control it every inch of it.

Anyway, Austin Powers is a comedy.

Except there’s a lot of sexual innuendo. It’s all silly slapstick and sophomoric humor. Is it still too much mojo for them? If I have to choose between letting my girls watch a film that was violent or sexual, I’ll choose the latter. Sexual content I can explain. I can put it in context. I can address their questions. But violence? How do you ever make that acceptable?

Which begs the question how do I want my daughters to learn about sex? Do I want it to be a clinical discussion? Should there be dramatic overtones of true love and finding the one? Will it come from Lady Gaga? Is Austin Powers such a horrible introduction to the world of sex? Sure, the woman are objectified (especially the Japanese twins), but then, so are the men. Everyone is having a good laugh. There are no sexual victims. All the main characters in the film think that sex is good and pleasurable. If anything, it’s the Holy Grail.

For now, I think it’s it all going over their heads anyway. It appears that the 20 back-to-back euphemisms for male genitalia haven’t registered with them (yet).

Yesterday, Buddy-roo did not want to leave the park after school. Then she complained all the way home. Her life is too hard. She misses her old school. Why does she have so much homework? Why does she have to go to school at all? Why can’t she stay at home? Why don’t I home-school her? Unhappy with each of my responses, she stormed ahead of us; I found her pouting in front of the front door to our building. She cried all the way up the four flights of stairs. Once in the apartment, things did not improve. I could see the evening spiraling down, something much harder to manage when I’m flying solo, which is the case this week because De-facto is out of town on business. In fact, he’s in Holland, where they speak freaky deaky Dutch (not far from Belgium, the home of Goldmember himself).

“Any and all kids who eat their dinner and do their homework without complaining, whining or dilly-dallying get to watch a movie before bedtime,” I pronounced. And then, don’t ask me why, I added, “the movie of your choice.”

Goldmember?” both of them, in unison.

I backed myself into this one. There was nowhere to go. “No whining? No fussing? None of this, wait let me do something else first?”

Heads nodded solemnly. Then, in tandem, their elbows folded in order to place their pinkies on their bottom lips. How could I say no?

The mood changed instantly. Dinner was executed without a hitch. It took over an hour for Buddy-roo to do homework, but she stayed at the table and slogged through it. It wasn’t easy-peazy, lemon-squeazy, though she smugly used this phrase, borrowed from the film, after writing out a few of her lesser-challenging spelling words.

Homework completed. Jams on and teeth brushed. We three curled up on the couch with Austin and his cast of characters. I can’t say I wasn’t cringing, I kept the remote in hand to mute the sound and distract the girls with a question about the plot when I couldn’t stand the puns any longer. Then at nine o’clock, about halfway through the film, we pressed pause (as agreed) and they ran upstairs without prompting (as agreed) and slipped into bed without any fuss.

And all I can say is Yeah, baby.