Mar 31 2015

Write or Call

I love a good long plane ride. The thought of hours cramped into an airplane horrifies many, but to me, a long-haul flight over the Atlantic or further is a gift of time and privacy. The hum of the airplane lulls me to extreme focus. I read, thoroughly. I write, prolifically. I’m in the zone. And then, after a few in_the_zonehours of productivity, I plug into the entertainment system and watch movies or catch up on TV series I rarely watch elsewhere. One after another, until we land. No phone calls. No texts or messages. Nobody calling me from the kitchen, or screaming “Mama!” from upstairs.

The thing about a flight like this, though, is that once you land and disembark from the sealed tube of delicious quiet, the world smacks you in the face. Portable devices begin to bing and beep, passengers are roused from the inward calm of their flight to face a bombardment of calls and messages and news of the outside world.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed one of those epic journeys, a 12-hour day-time flight and as expected, I was hit with the bushel of unread messages as soon as I landed. I eliminated the ones I could easily identify as a spam that snuck through the filter, or as one of the newsletters that get less attention when I’m traveling and screen time is limited. (My appetite for reading never matches my on-line stamina and after a trip like this I’m inspired to purge the overload of subscriptions I’ve too ambitiously taken on.) Then I scanned what was left, assessing which ones were mission critical, and then I saw the emboldened letters of my daughter’s name. Short-pants had written me an email message. I opened it right away.

The message contained four or five well crafted paragraphs telling me about her day. How a boy she might be a little sweet on had stared at her in class. Her favorite teacher gave an interesting homework assignment. She made up an equation: the boy + the teacher + the subject she loves = her smiling all the way home from school. How she missed me but knows I’m away doing the work I love to do. It startled me a bit, how articulate her phrases, the absence of any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, capital letters where there were supposed to be caps. It was a grown-up message.
fun_to_write_letters
Over the next few days, we wrote back and forth. A message or two each day, each one from her rich with descriptions of not only her activities, but her observations – some of them rather keen insights – about why things happened and how she felt about them. She’s always been good with words, reading like a fiend since she was a peanut, writing charming little notes, winning a spelling bee, but something has shifted. It’s no longer cute and precocious. It’s thoughtful and reflective, the words of a lovely young woman.

~ ~ ~

Every day, at about the same time, my phone rings. Even if I’m not in the mood to be on the phone – I’m more of a writer than a talker – I answer cheerfully. Buddy-roo walks out of the school and her first instinct is to turn on her telephone and give me a call. I want her to feel like that call is always welcome, so unless I’m truly in the thick of something else, I’ll answer. She chatters away, slightly breathless as she walks up the hill toward our home from school, filling me in on who told whom what in the courtyard, and how much homework she has, and what she had for lunch. Much of it is banal, but I ask as many questions as I can, to keep the exchange going. I want her to create a habit of telling me what’s happening in her life.

Buddy-roo experiences highs and lows at maximum velocity. She’s having the best day ever or else her life is a catastrophe. One day, after a tearful call that lasted a good portion of her walk home, she turned her key in the door, dropped her heavy backpack on the floor and threw herself on the couch.

“My friends all think I’m too dramatic!”

I don’t disagree with her friends, but I figured they’d already made the point. I didn’t pile anything on top of it. What I don’t want to do is keep her from telling me what she’s feeling, even if what she’s feeling seems exaggerated. Who knows how long she will keep open this doorway locked_into me, showing me her raw thoughts and feelings as they occur. Dismissing her ups and downs as drama, right now, would surely close the door and lock it tight. So I listen and ask questions that might make her think beyond the hailstorm that she perceives is pounding upon her. Okay, and I hint a little, that maybe her friends are on to something. But mostly, I try to be there to answer her call, while she’s still dialing.

Short-pants hardly touches her telephone. An occasional text, but calling is not her thing. I had to give her lessons about how to talk on the phone, otherwise she just sits there breathing while you do all the work. Getting Buddy-roo to write a quick email – let alone a thank-you note to someone who’s given her a present – is like pulling teeth, but she’s expert at chatting away on the telephone. They are products of the same parents and the same environment, and yet, so different. As babies, toddlers and now as they crash into their adolescence, the things that make them distinct from each other become that much more apparent, more palatable.

One writes, the other calls. But at least they both want to tell me what’s happening in their lives. I’ll take that while I can get it, and relish every word.


Dec 30 2012

Unnecessary Narration

It is inevitable that spending several consecutive days in close quarters with the people you know most can be disastrous – even though you love them – if you don’t get a little space from each other. Vacations, they say, can make or break a couple. Too much togetherness reveals our most interesting habits. I remember an early getaway trip with De-facto; we went skiing in Switzerland and then took a train to Naples where we rented a car and drove around the boot of Italy. There was a moment during that trip when I said to myself, he’s a nice guy but obviously we are not going to work out. I’m not sure exactly what happened to turn that prediction around, but (I think) I’m glad for it. family_on_bridge.jpg

There have been some parallels on this trip, our holiday in Africa. They are a nice family but obviously this is not going to work out. I’m not afraid to admit to an occasional fantasy that they are absent from my current reality. It is short-lived, but a luxurious thought. It is free of little voices and constant questions. There are no demands for help to find or fix something that all of a sudden is dear to them, and then ten minutes later it is left behind on the floor for me to trip over. Most of all, in this fantasy, there is quiet. The chattering in the back seat ceases.

“She won’t play with me,” Buddy-roo complains even though she ignored her sister’s overtures to engage in a game, less than twenty minutes earlier.

“Can’t you just be quiet?” Short-pants screeches, even though an hour ago she was the one driving us all batty with a constant stream of words, attributing wild animals to her favorite literary characters by their first initial: “Hermione and Harry are hippos, Ron is a rhino, Neville is a nyala…”

Now it’s Buddy-roo who keeps on talking, spiteful in her aim to punish her sister. “Look! We’re all wearing something blue except Papa! I’ve got blue shorts, you’ve got blue pants, and mama has a blue shirt…”

From the backseat a litany of inconsequential facts continue to pour out of Buddy-roo like water from a fire hose. Everything is delivered with authority, especially the facts that she makes up on the spot. As an extrovert, she only really knows what she’s thinking if she says it aloud. She requires constant stimulation and if something isn’t filling the space, she will.

Short-pants, on the other hand, is a bona-fide introvert, à la Susan Caine, and if there’s too much of anything for too long – too much talking, music, tree_roots_entangled.jpgnoise, chaos – the meltdown can be impressive. But she has a sense of her own preference, usually removing herself from an over-stimulating environment with a polite, “I think I just need a little alone time.”

It’s hard to remove yourself politely from the backseat of an economy car in the middle of a wild game park, so the meltdown is unavoidable.

“Enough!” Short-pants slaps the car seat hard with her hand. “I’ve had it with the unnecessary narration!”

De-facto and I glance sideways at each other, suppressing our laughter. Her angry outburst shocks Buddy-roo into silence, bringing a temporary peace to the car. Two beats later, the both of them start crying in tandem.

~ ~ ~

When Short-pants was ten months old, we took her to the United States to introduce her to our family up and down the east coast. De-facto’s brother loaned us his 1970’s Volkswagon bus, an iconic touring vehicle that broke down every other day. Half of the photos from that trip are of De-facto with his head stuck in the rear of that bus, trying to sort out why the engine wouldn’t run much faster than 45 miles per hour.

It was slow going, but Short-pants was a good sport. When she got a little fussy, I’d entertain her with a crew of little plastic wild animals that had been given to us by one of our friends who hosted us along our route. There was a tiny impala, a giraffe and other wild, hooved beasts. Short-pants was fascinated by them, especially when I moved them up and down her legs and thighs, as though they were walking across her body. We must have discovered this simple distraction while near our nation’s capital, because I started humming Hail to the Chief as those little hooved creatures made the trek around her lap. I did not know the words to this anthem, so I used crooner syllables dah-dah-doo-wah throughout the entire song. I played this game with her for hours, while she kicked and giggled in her car seat.
distant_hippos
Six months later, Short-pants’ was on another trip, this time to South Africa where De-facto and I were working at a conference. Our hosts organized a game drive and we took her along, on my lap. The open-to-the-air truck barreled down a long dirt road beside a grove of trees and made a sharp 90-degree turn. Right in front of us, in the middle of the road, stood a tall giraffe, nearly twenty feet tall. The truck halted and we all lurched forward, staring up, speechless, at the long-necked creature.

“Dat-doo-waaaahh!” Short-pants’ little voice expressed the awe of everyone on the drive.

That was when we realized she’d associated my lyrics of the President’s theme song with the little plastic animals. Now that she’d seen a real one, it had been named. Our family has its own words, and this is one of them. We don’t say giraffe; we say dat-doo-wah.

It happens now and then, these days, that she’ll mention a dat-doo-wah in the company of friends who then give her a blank stare, not knowing the folklore of this word in our family. She’ll laugh nervously, at her own joke, wondering why nobody else is laughing with her.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” we remind her. “You have to tell the story, or people won’t get it.” In this case, a little narration is necessary.

~ ~ ~

This morning the two siblings were attached at the hip in an amicable game of pretend fairies, but now they’re at each other’s throats, having strung up shirts from headrests of the car seats to draw the boundaries that shall not be crossed in the backseat of the car. The tears have abated but their sniping continues, an ongoing (and unnecessary) soundtrack of stay on your own side! and don’t touch me! dahdoowahThere’s nowhere to stop and let them out to run off their angry energy; we’re an hour away from our camp and we have to get there before the gates close, in just about an hour.

As if on command, a long, lanky giraffe appears on the side of the road.

“Look! Up ahead.”

Short-pants and Buddy-roo lift their eyes to see what I’m pointing at.

Dah-doo-wah!” their voices in tandem.

In an instant, the bitterness between them gives way to excitement. The words they exchange now are enthusiastic. Together they admire the elegant animal standing tall before them. Short-pants reports that the dah-doo-wah has the same number of vertebrae as a human. Buddy-roo wonders how this could be true, with such a long neck. Their chatter, as constant as ever, but at least the incessant narration has turned friendly again. Obviously, if this is going to work out, that was necessary.


Sep 24 2009

The Words

Words count for a lot in our house; me being the aspiring writer, Short-pants, a voracious reader, De-facto, an enthusiastic speaker (goes to Toastmasters) and Buddy-roo, the consummate chatterbox. Not to mention that in our household we speak two languages, so we have double the number of words to navigate. Words matter.

Hang around with us and you’ll occasionally hear one of the adults suggesting calmly (and not to each other), “use your words.” Pointing and grunting are frowned upon. Our children have been indoctrinated to speak in full sentences and even the magic words are pretty well embedded. Not that an occasional reminder isn’t necessary, but frequently enough to impress me, the girls make good use of please and thank you – and do so with real feeling.

Every household has its “words,” part of the family folklore that is generated by the cute or clever mistakes made by children as they learn about life and language. Often these words relate to scatological subject matter; a topic which I deliberately avoid in this blog because a) I find it unattractive, b) nobody cares about my children’s potty habits, and 3) it would be a nightmare if a Google search on my name produced something so distasteful and yet memorable. But it’s a subject we all talk about – at least privately – and it is often the cornerstone of a family vocabulary. My brother and sister and I made a blood pact never to divulge the words to another living person, a vow we all have kept. Even De-facto doesn’t know the words from my childhood, and never will.
graffiti_word
Having said that, there is a word that De-facto and I introduced to our lil’ nuclear family that I will share – because my friends love it so much – the word we use for one’s “private parts.” It’s not that we have such a hang-up about the technical terms; we’ll get to them when the girls start posing probing questions about the birds and the bees. But honestly, I never wanted my 3-year old over-employing the word vagina in a loud voice at the supermarket, so we came up with a gender-neutral signifier instead: the business. Typical use at bath time: “Did you wash the business?” Another common usage: “If your business doesn’t hurt, why are you holding it?”

It’s a bit easier on the ear than the v-word or the p-word, and can be used discreetly in public, like a code. It only backfired on me once, when Buddy-roo, at the age of about 4, bounded into my office despite the closed-tight door, to announce something important. I shushed her in a panicked whisper: “Shhhh! Mama’s on a business call!”

Business?!” she shrieked as De-facto apologetically pulled her out of the office and shut the door behind them. I could hear her laughing in the hall, “Mama’s making a call from her business? Ha!”

Yes, well it seemed like a good word when we first came up with it.

Some of these invented family words come into common use because of an adorable mispronunciation or mal-interpretation that turns out to be quite astute. Buddy-roo is the originator of some of our best terminology. She of course utters the typical breafquist, an oft-mispronounced word. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when every child says it, but it’s not that original. Part of Buddy-roo’s linguistic charm is her strange non-rhotic accent which amuses us to no end because even De-Facto, who hails from Boston, doesn’t share her aversion for the letter ‘R.’ But accent and odd pronunciation habits aside, Buddy-roo excels at inventing words. And they make more sense than you’d expect. A few examples:

Rainbrella: the round, collapsible device one uses as protection from the rain. This makes so much more sense to us than umbrella, which, um, has nothing to do with the element against which it’s designed to offer protection. (I guess it makes sense if you speak Latin, which we don’t.) She also suggested the word Sunbrella, similarly styled and found at the beach. No doubt Buddy-roo’s French has informed the invention of these two words, as parapluie and parasol are both used for the rain or the sun.

Unlistener. This is a person, initially a child in the first grade – but you can imagine this applying to any segment of the population – who, despite being within auditory range, prefers to remain in the state of “not having heard it.” An unlistener can be quite selective, but ultimately, this is someone that you can’t really count on to receive or re-transmit information of any importance. Common usage: “You can’t ask him anything, he’s the biggest unlistener in the class.”

Smashed potatoes. So much more descriptive than mashed ones, don’t you think?
three_dictionaries
Short-pants, on the other hand, takes very seriously the correct acquisition of new words for her vocabulary. Last week, she got the idea to sleep with her dictionaries, reasoning that the words might seep into her brain by osmosis, a word she then had to look up. It makes for an uncomfortable night’s rest, as she feels compelled to stack under her pillow three dictionaries – English, French and French/English – to accommodate her hunger for words. Hard to say if it’s working, but we must admire her commitment to learning.

Short-pants is a stickler for correctness, and this kicks in when she overhears me speaking French. My French is operable, but I don’t have the linguistic muscle that she’s acquired by starting it at such a young age. Since she feels compelled to correct my pronunciation and grammar, we’ve made a deal: I will receive her corrections enthusiastically, as long as she delivers them gently with the intention of helping rather than humiliating me. It’s a beautiful thing. She’ll wait until nobody is around and leaning toward me, in a conspiratorial tone, she’ll suggest something like, “Mama, you might want to say le instead of la with the word pain.”

Buddy-roo, I can already tell you, won’t treat me so kindly. Her corrections, when they start coming at me, will be marked with eye rolling and heavy sighs of disgust, which I will tolerate for only a short while before I tell her to mind her own business.