Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

I’ve lost ten hours of my life to that bank. Ten hours I didn’t have to spare. Hours of fussing with the new on-line interface that won’t connect, or calling help-lines and being put on hold. Hours standing in line at a branch office, the only one that deals with my problem, a problem that can be addressed at only one desk, the one with six people waiting in front of it. I will lose at least three more hours opening a new account in a different bank, and trotting down to the previous one and attempting to withdraw all my funds. I suppose it will eventually get sorted and in the context of all the other horrible things that are happening in the world, this is a luxurious problem. But I’ll never get those hours back. clocks_times_three

It’s not a time when I can be generous with hours. An array of projects lie unfolded before me, marked by a mosaic of bright Post-it notes on the wall above my desk or Skype calls inked in my calendar. All of these need time and take time. Each one of them something important or at least fascinating to me, none I would be prepared to discard. Yet all of them, all at once, fill up the hours of the day, and quickly.

I have so many things I want to write. Website updates and posts about all those interesting projects. A book to finish editing (for work). A book to finish writing (for myself). So there’s no pleasure in the time spent on bank interfaces that won’t work, or calling our internet service provider about the strange undulation of our allegedly high speed, high quality fibre optic wifi, or hunting down viruses that have snuck into my computer, or scheduling doctor’s appointments I should have made weeks ago.

The girls, of course, need time from me, now more than ever. Short-pants is carrying the stress of her schoolwork. Always conscientious about homework, she manages it without assistance, but lately you can see the burden of the workload – it increases in intensity and volume every year — taking its toll on her. Each week, her introverted self gets depleted by Thursday. She explodes in anger or bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Especially when it’s her sister who drops it.

Her sister, who is going through her own existential crisis, spiraling down into dark thoughts. Don’t laugh: I remember going through this myself when I was Buddy-roo’s age, conjuring up weird fantasies about what would happen if I was dead. Never enough to make it happen, but wondering about it, which leads to wondering about why are we here anyway, and for Buddy-roo, pondering what’s the point, especially if she doesn’t have a iPhone like all her friends?

The only antidote to their various bouts of teenage angst – both legitimate and dramatic – is time. Time spent sitting on the couch beside them, listening, chatting, or just being there and doing nothing at all. Time when I step away from the computer and give them my full attention. Time when they get to feel like they are the most important thing on my to-do list.
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And then there’s Christmas. The time of year for spirited joy and treasured family traditions. Time-honored traditions that take a lot of time. It’s a holiday that’s hardest on moms, even if dads play along. Or maybe it just hits me the hardest. Me and my mother, who used to get all wound up at Christmas and I never understood why until I was the one buying, wrapping, baking and planning. Though nobody’s holding a gun to my head to bake 4 dozen ginger-bread men and 8 dozen Christmas cut-outs (because that’s what the recipe makes) every year.

“Because it’s your tradition,” De-facto says, when, wincing at my sore shoulders, I ask myself out loud why I do this every year.

I do know why. The girls love it. They jump up and down at the mention of the seasonal baking. Now they’re old enough to really help – as opposed to when they were toddlers, when their “help” had a short attention span – and they do their share by mixing the ingredients to make the dough, rolling it flat and cutting out the angels and stars and fir trees and Santas. They know how to add the food coloring to the sugar, and how to sprinkle it on the cookies while the icing is still soft. That’s time well spent, and spent together, but it makes me long for a time when I was the one standing on the stool watching my mother read from her recipe card while she blended the ingredients with her foley fork, admonishing me, with affection, not to eat too much of the raw dough.

Because for me – and I know I say this every year – Christmas isn’t entirely joyful. It’s a time when I miss all those people who used to come together for the holidays, whose collective presence seated around my parents’ living room was the most comforting thing in the world. Christmas makes me want to regress to an earlier time, a time when I was the one marveling at the tree and its trimmings and shaking the decorated packages beneath it, when my only responsibility was playing the elf who distributed the gifts as we sat around and opened them one-by-one, and maybe setting the table or drying a few dishes after Christmas dinner. I long for those days when the hours between now and Christmas morning seemed an eternity, when time couldn’t move fast enough. If only we could put those restless, protracted hours in the bank when we’re young and impatient, and withdraw them later, when we’d appreciate them so much more. (Santa, can I open that account for Christmas?)

In the meantime, the speed of how we experience time is variable but (mostly) out of our control. There’s nothing to do but take in this moment now: Buddy-roo squatting before the Christmas tree, keep_outbemoaning how many days there are still before Christmas while I put a “keep out” sign on my office door and scramble to finish wrapping presents. This is what she will remember, and some day she will long for it. That’s the most enduring gift I can give those girls, a string of Christmases to remember fondly, even if the memory is always a little bit bittersweet.


May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.


Oct 8 2013

Taking Care

It wasn’t like we didn’t know we’d be uprooting ourselves, leaving the familiar routines and our favorite people. This had all been contemplated last spring before we filled in the paperwork to apply to the new school. At every social occasion, once that decision had been made, I’d survey the room and nod to myself that I would miss these people. During our last months in Paris I reviewed the routines that had become so natural to me, the morning school drop-off and coffee klatch afterward, the passages courvertesregarde_le I’d walk through on my way to the beauty nurse or to get my hair cut, the favorite bar stools at my neighborhood hangout, the friendly banter with my pharmacist or the lady at the patisserie, knowing that these would soon become part of my fond memories of Paris and I have to carve out new rituals in their place.

Nor was I naïve about losing the support network we’ve built over the years; other mothers to call when Buddy-roo forgets to bring the necessary books home for her homework, babysitters and child-care helpers to ease the after school commute home or to cover when both De-facto and I travel for work. We’d discussed rejecting any work that took us both out of town at the same time, at least for the first few months, not only to provide continuity of parental support for the girls as they adjust to the new environment, but to give us the time to find someone we could trust and who could tolerate our children for a week at a time. In Paris, the part-time nanny who’d helped when the kids were babies had moved on to another day job, but her brother could handle afternoons and she’d move right into our home when we traveled, taking over the household. She was like family; she knew the girls as if they were her own, what they liked to eat and how to manage their emotional swings. We knew this would be hard to recreate. Not impossible, but it would take time to find someone who could take care of them like that.

As quickly as we vowed not to be out of town simultaneously, the demands came. A project slated for June was rescheduled to September, in Moscow. Not a problem, until De-facto received a request to give a keynote at a conference in London that very same week. I grumbled when I found out he’d accepted; we’d agreed not to travel at the same time and my job had been in the calendar first. But keynoting is the thing he loves to do and wants to do more, so how could I grumble, really, at his plum assignment?

We hobbled together a plan involving a university student who tutors the girls in Spanish (and Catalan) and our new cleaner who speaks not a word patchesof English, so I could fly off for a week hoping the two days De-facto would be gone would go without a hitch. But the real hurdle was still ahead. Despite the proclamation not to travel at the same time, another assignment came in, a pretty juicy and interesting job one that would require the both of us to go to Altanta, together. I remember thinking it was too much and volunteering to stand down and stay at home.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” De-facto said, “this will force us to find someone.”

He was right about that. Each day that ticked by I tried to sort out how we’d manage it. I attended all the welcome coffees hosted by seasoned mothers at the school – gestures to help newcomers get acquainted with the school community and begin to make friends – putting the word out that we needed to find a reliable person to move in with our children for a whole week, and fairly soon.

I expected to be met with judgment – how could you move our children to a new city and leave them there within a month of getting settled in a new apartment with a new school? But this was only my self admonishment. The women I discussed this with were empathetic and resourceful, suggesting former nannies, possible babysitters and at least three of them volunteering to take the girls if we ended up without any other option. I was heartened by their support, but none of the solutions felt easy to orchestrate. Uprooting the girls and putting them in the house of someone they didn’t really know felt a bit harsh. It seemed an imposition to ask a family to take them in for seven full days, but the idea of cobbling together a few days with one family and then moving to another felt like a nightmare to choreograph. I’m already mildly obsessed with notes and schedules for the girls when I travel. Coordinating a mid-week hand-off with people I barely knew would require more organization than I wanted to endeavor. We needed someone to move in with the girls in our new home, for more than a week, and in only a few week’s time.

~ ~ ~

It was good to get away. De-facto walked me out to hail a cab and waved as it pulled away. I settled into the seat as the driver headed to the airport, relieved, for the first time in a long while, to be heading somewhere alone. I have always enjoyed traveling solo, and it could be said that these last months did not deliver my minimum requirements of solitude. In the airport lounge waiting for boarding call for Moscow I was almost giddy to be going somewhere, somewhere else and on my own.

I am a better mother if I get a break now and then.
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The thing about my business travel is once you get there you don’t get out much. The meetings I run are immersive and intense, and most of the day is spent inside the hotel or conference center. This trip was no different except for the view out the meeting room window, a constant reminder that we were someplace very different and that Red Square, and the babushka selling the Matryoshka nesting dolls I would buy to take home to the girls, was only a stone’s throw away.

The week sped by while I juggled the progress of the meeting with the remote organization of things at home. De-facto had left. Someone else had arrived. She’d dropped them at school. The hand-off was made. De-facto returned. The girls marched along with each step of the plan without complaint, un-phased by the changing of the guard, and a new guard at that. We’ve trained them to be flexible, or they’re remarkably resilient – or both.

~ ~ ~

While I was in Moscow I got word from an agency, one suggested to me by one of the mothers at one of those morning coffee meet-ups. They had a candidate for me to meet, a mature woman who could speak French with the kids, but Spanish if there were an emergency and even a little bit of English. She would come stay with the kids and feed them, get them to school, nudge them on their homework but go about her own jewelry-making business during the day. The price was fair, her references reliable. Then last week she came by to meet us to see if it was the right fit. Short-pants was friendly enough, but as she’s on the threshold of her teen years she decides, sometimes, not to be enthusiastic. Buddy-roo played shy girl at first, hiding in the (as yet) unfilled bookshelves of out living room and behind half open doors as I gave a tour of the apartment and shared what would be the schedule for the week we’re away. But by the time we’d made it upstairs to show off the girls’ universe, she’d come around.

“These are the Fisher Price Toys,” she boasted. “They were my mom’s but now they’re mine.”
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Buddy-roo described the ongoing story line for each of the pieces that were set up, in play if you will, on the floor of her room. The family in the house that always has visitors, or the couple that ran away with all their things piled on the houseboat. (Sound familiar?) Then she turned to her collection of stuffed animals. The new nanny sat down on the bed as Buddy-roo introduced each one, one by one. I stepped backward out of the room, into the hall, listening to their conversation. Soon I slipped downstairs to finish my work for the day.

A half an hour later they came down, hand in hand. We went over the final details for her stay, I showed her the kitchen and told how we’d stock up with food before we left. We went over all the drop-offs and pick-ups and bed times and special perks. She seemed cool, like someone I’d hang out with. She wore gray Chuck Taylors and cool hand-made earrings, but she hadn’t hesitated to get on the floor and play with a 10-year old. When she picked up her bag and moved toward the door, Buddy-roo ran up and threw her arms around her, begging her not to go. For me, a huge relief, the dull ache I’d been carrying all month, seemingly sorted out. It’s not ideal, I wish we knew her better. I wish we’d had the chance to do a trial run. But I have a good feeling about her, and I trust Buddy-roo’s sense on this one too. And now I can go, with at least a minimized stress concern, knowing that someone can be there with the girls, taking care.


Dec 11 2012

Adjustments

I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.


Dec 2 2012

Being Away

It usually starts with tip-toeing around the apartment in the early morning darkness, adding the last toiletry items to my suitcase and leaving a post-it note on the kitchen island with a last minute instruction about some detail that must be attended to in my absence. If time permits, a soft kiss on angelic foreheads of sleeping children and a light touch on De-facto’s shoulder before ever-so-gently closing the door behind me and heading down the stairs carrying suitcase and computer bag. Once out on the street, my rollaway valise is noisy against the cobblestone streets, rickety-rickety until the pavement turns smooth and the taxi stand is in sight.

A taxi ride to a train or a plane that takes me far away, and I find myself in a conference hotel somewhere, with the prospect of two or three or five nights without my family in reach.

“It must be hard, with all your travel,” people say.

It’s not. I like the fact that when I’m on a job – my work is intense, immersive and full-on – that I can be singular in focus. I can work until the work is done without having to switch gears to domestic matters. I need the hour of absolute quiet to wind down before going to sleep, and I need the hour of solitude upon walking up to keep my energy intact for the next day’s work. I actually like the break from my family.

I have colleagues who check in every day, more than once, keeping in touch with spouses and children. Oddly, De-facto and I don’t bother. He travels as much as I do, often leaving me at home with Short-pants and Buddy-roo for a week or more at a time. We’ll go days without talking to each other when one of us is on the road. An occasional email message will assure us that the other is still alive, but they’re usually short and sweet.

When the girls were little we thought it would be important to call home and touch base with them, like that would somehow be reassuring. It did just the opposite. My call would inevitably occur at the worst possible moment, interrupting the flow constructed by De-facto or by the babysitter. I remember De-facto was out of town and the girls and I were happily in our groove when he called to check in. At first, it was a delight for them, to hear his voice and have a chat. But once he hung up, they began to wail. All I heard for the rest of the day was how much they missed Papa.

I guess it’s a courtesy we give each other, De-facto and I, and it works both ways. When you’re gone, you’re gone; go do your thing and check in when you can. And when you’re home, you’re home; just keep calm and carry on.

It doesn’t mean I don’t think about them or that I don’t miss them. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love for one of those cherubs to crawl in for the morning cuddle (quietly) or that I don’t long to have a strong hug from De-facto and his thoughtful ear to talk to about all that’s happening. But we’ve somehow struck a balance that permits each one of us to pursue the professional and personal activities that will nourish us, without turning the idea of being away from home into a big deal or a bad thing.

The girls voice their disappointment about our absences, but they soldier on with one parent – or with our good caregivers when both De-facto and I must be away – and I think this is important for them to understand: Mama and Papa do interesting things. Someday, I tell them, you’ll go off to do interesting things too. They’re learning to be a little independent, forced to manage without my care every waking moment. And most important, they know first hand that when I go away, I come back. This must give them some sense of security, and it gives me a sense of freedom, much needed.

Plus the reunions are always so sweet.

It’s rare that I have two week-long programs back-to-back, but that’s the case for this trip. I’m only halfway through and knackered already, but I’m happy. Happy to be able to travel and do the work that I do; happy to have a family at home that, even though they might miss me, doesn’t mind so much, me being away.

The photograph of the Parisian street by Peter Turnley.


Feb 19 2012

Lost and Found

A travel day can be a lost day, or a found one. When the job ends too late to make it to the airport, I am occasionally afforded an extra overnight in the hotel, and a quiet morning to myself without anything pressing to do. The meeting organizers and participants – who will sleep in their own homes that night – offer me sympathy, which I receive graciously. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to zap myself home and curl up next to De-facto and wake up to giggling girls in the morning, but the alternative isn’t a severe punishment. It is rare, once you have a family, to sleep alone and to wake alone, and there’s something delicious about the chance to do so.

Oh but I had plans. Several writing projects that have been on the back burner, a bit of research I’ve been meaning to do for another assignment. Big things I’d do with those extra hours. I’d gotten up early for an hour-long Skype call with my trainer, but otherwise I let the lazy morning stretch toward noon. I lounged around my hotel room doing a whole lot of nothing in particular: browsing, surfing, cleaning out my email inbox, catching up on non-urgent correspondence. It was supremely satisfying, handling all those little rocks.

I don’t remember where I heard the theory of big rocks and little rocks, but it’s a metaphor that’s stayed with me. The large rocks represent the important purpose-giving activities that one hopes to accomplish in any given day or week or period of time. The little rocks are the administrative and logistical tasks of life, those to-do lists I often rant about, all the minor tasks that take up time. Not that these little rocks are necessarily unimportant. Paying bills might be one of those pebbles, but if it doesn’t happen on time, the havoc created can further delay attention to the big rocks, and leads to additional smaller rocks just to get things back in order.

The theory goes that if you have a large glass vase and you fill it up with all the little rocks first, there won’t be enough room for the big rocks to fit in on top. But if you place the large rocks in first, and let the little rocks slip into the crevasses between them, then every rock will fit in the container.

Do the meaningful agenda items first, then the minutia.

This makes mountains of sense to me, but it doesn’t mean I can execute it consistently. It’s partially related to my medium-level of discipline, but also a natural by-product, I think, of the distractions – all those little tasks – that our children create for us. Then, of course, there’s the thrill of the Internet: the latest link to breaking news, three new emails announce themselves with a cheerful red dot in the dock of my desktop. (This isn’t so modern: as a child I used to wait and watch for the mailman to drive by every day, hoping for a letter from some summer-camp friend.) These incoming attacks of data and information all call for my attention, even if I’ve shut down the pipeline, which I often do.

Yet those lovely and surprising distractions take me on such serendipitous excursions each day. An article that provokes new thinking, a data point that’s amusing or interesting that could be used in my work. A soulful blog post that makes me laugh or even produces a gentle tear or two. It would be a shame to cut those little side-turns out of my experience entirely.

After my lazy morning, but before I left the hotel for the airport, I took a walk to stretch my legs. I’d been penned up in a windowless hotel meeting room for nearly three days, and the fresh air and sunshine were a relief. I did a full circuit around four long city blocks, walking briskly, breathing apace with my strides. It was just a 20-minute stroll, but it felt like a big rock, like something I needed to do, to keep my sanity.

I left my phone in the room – I wasn’t expecting a call and I didn’t intend to make one – yet almost every person I passed on the street wasn’t really on the street with me. They were on their portable phones, talking at full volume, waving their arms to make their point. Nobody was just walking and thinking. Nobody was just looking around. Even the people walking in pairs. They appeared to be conducting their own business, side-by-side but on their own devices, with other people in other places. Nobody was simply present.

At the airport, I felt like a fish swimming upstream, walking against the tide of people talking with their earphones on, or with noses buried in their smart phones, thumbs tapping away. The night before, in a restaurant, the diners seated on both sides of me felt it necessary to keep their phones on their tables, right next to their plates. I purposely put mine away. Partly because while I’m in the U.S. my roaming charges are onerous. Partly in defiance to the plugged-in, linked-in connected world that is eating us all up.

I love my gadgets and my connectivity. I really do. But I have to ask myself, just to stay honest: Which rocks does technology put in my hands? The big ones, or the little ones?

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the big rocks in my life. The manuscript that languishes on my hard-drive. That relocation project that I’ve been dreaming about for too long, and I’ve done little to prepare myself to make it happen. The children. They are my biggest rocks, though sometimes I forget this. I get so caught up in the little rocks – many of which have to do with them and their logistics – that I forget the biggest rock thing I can do is simply pay attention and engage with their lives. Find things to do together. Cultivate a rapport with them that they will cherish when I am gone. Appreciate them. Learn from them. (Until the eventual moment – and it’s not far off – when all they’ll want to do is talk on the phone and use their computers. But we’re not there yet.)

I suppose it takes a few days away, and maybe a long walk in the sun, to remember. Or else it’s just a string of hours to myself, to get lost in the thoughts of an uninterrupted morning to get my rocks in order, so I can find my way back to the precious stones that they are.

(Courtyard photo by Betsy Riley)


Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.


Apr 3 2011

It rains, it pours.

I woke up to the sound of rain. Pouring rain. Teeming, relentless rain.

We live immediately beneath the roof, and on days when there is nowhere in particular to go, the rain’s melodic timpani is soothing and cozying-in. This was, however, not one of those mornings. An early morning meeting meant I had to be up before dawn. Not just a meeting I had to attend and add my occasional two-cents, this was a meeting I had to set up, and lead. A meeting with output that I had the responsibility to produce.

To complicate matters, De-facto was out of town and I’d been solo-piloting the household all week. I’d made an arrangement with neighbors to drop Short-pants and Buddy-roo at their place at 7:30 and they’d finish the delivery at school an hour or so later. But in order for all this to happen, it mean rousing the girls at 6:45, which meant getting up and getting myself ready first.

I’m not really a six-in-the-morning type of mom. I’m more of a who-wants-to-make-me-coffee-while-I-lay-in-bed kind of mom. But I heeded the alarm; I had no choice. I did all the personal bits to put myself in presentable order and then started poking my sleeping beauties. Grumpy, groggy heads rose off the pillows with thick resistance. The aroma of pancakes (batter mixed the night before) in a hot fry pan finally got their attention and stirred them from the warmth of their beds.

The rain was heavy and steady. I’d be better off in a cab than walking to and from the metro at both ends of this trip, so I found my cell phone and dialed T-A-X-I. The automated greeting prompted me to punch in 0735, the time in four digits that I wanted to be picked up. A robotic voice confirmed a taxi at 7:35 at an address on rue du Bourg Tibourg. Not my street, that was where some visiting friends had stayed a few months ago and I’d organized their ride to the airport – evidently the last time I called for a taxi. I pressed “2” for the menu option to change the address. The automated system wouldn’t accept it and repeatedly asked me to confirm the same incorrect address. I tried everything: saying no, saying my address, pressing a number of other keys on the telephone keypad before hanging up exasperated, in the meantime nearly burning a pancake while attempting to sort out my transportation to this meeting.

I used the landline to call another taxi service. The good news: an actual person answered. The bad news: it was impossible to order a taxi for 25-minutes-from-now, I had to call when I was ready for the cab to arrive. Except when it’s raining in Paris, and you call for a taxi immediate, you’re guaranteed the standard answer: sorry, no cars available.

In other news, the clothes I’d laid out for Buddy-roo were all wrong. I’d fastened the clasps on Short-pants’ backpack without zipping it first, as she prefers. And apparently, there was too much syrup on the pancakes.

“Please just eat the pancake,” I said.
“But I can’t,” said Short-pants.
“Just eat the pancake.”
“It’s too syrupy.”
Then came the I’m-seriously-about-to-get-angry voice, the really stern one.
“Eat. The. Pancake.”

The eruption of tears shouldn’t have surprised me, Short-pants is über-sensitive. When Buddy-roo joined in, upset by my tone or her sister’s tears (or both) and I had two wailing girls on my hands. My eyes darted to the microwave clock – it was 7:12 and they needed to be fed and dressed and brushed in fifteen minutes and I’d managed to throw a wrench in the plan I’d worked out to prepare the kids cheerfully but swiftly, get them out the door and get myself (and a suitcase full of workshop supplies) to this damn meeting on time.

A crescendo of rain pounded on the kitchen skylight, the sound nearly drowning out their tandem crying.

In moments like this, a time-out is the best option. I removed myself to the still-curtained dark of my bedroom, permitted a few curses to escape, words I’m sure I’ll hear parroted at a future and inopportune moment. This was followed by the contemplation – in a split second – of all the choices I’d made in my life to bring me to this moment. A few synapses-signals later, my string of misery: I hated my work, I hated my children, I hated De-facto (this was all his fault anyway), I hated Paris. I hated the rain. I hated taxis. I hated all the other would-be passengers waiting ahead of me in the long line at a taxi queue that would empty of any cabs. I hated the room full of people waiting for me, everybody tapping their foot while I’d be hurrying to set the room, like one of those nightmares you wake up from in a sweat or like a painfully clumsy scene from Mr. Bean, where I’d be fumbling around to hang flip-chart paper on the wall and dropping pads of post-it notes all over the floor.

Big breath. A shift in thinking, to consider this: Not an earthquake. Not a tsunami. Not a nuclear disaster. No guerilla combatants within range. “Not my wife, not my life,” somebody wise once told me. Just a long week alone with the girls (hats off to every single parent in the world), and a temporary wave of stress about a job I wanted to do well. I lifted my head from my hands, gathered myself up off the bed and returned to the kitchen where the girls had remained frozen in their chairs, crying, not eating.

“How about I make another pancake and put it on the plate with that one, to soak up the syrup?”

The crying calmed to sniffles and a solemn nodding of heads. Breakfast resumed and completed. Teeth were brushed. Shoes and coats and donned, book-bags hoisted over little shoulders. Children hustled down the stairs and handed off successfully. The rain had let up. A miracle of plenty at the taxi queue. I even had time for a quick coffee at the café beside the office where my meeting was to be held. It’s true when it rains, it pours – but never forget, then it stops.


Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.