Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.


Oct 17 2009

Dishwasher Dilemma

Sometimes De-facto and I work together, professionally.

I’m wary about this because living, loving, and parenting together are hard enough. Adding the vocational dimension is tricky; it could put us over the 24/7 edge. He always rolls his eyes when I say this, but I think it’s important: We each need our own time and place in the sun. And honestly, we’d drive each other crazy if our careers were absolutely inextricable.

But on those occasions when we do get to team up, we do pretty well. We pass the baton back and forth and mix things up a little with our different styles. My favorite part is when he gives his little spiel about patterned thinking. It starts out something like this:

“Humans are actually hard-wired to locate, create, and sustain patterns. It’s part of our survival. The brain is a pattern-making machine.”

He goes on to support this with a little bit of scientific research, a few diagrams of the human brain and a little exercise that people always flub up because they get too caught in a pattern they think they see but isn’t really there. It’s a good set-up for raising awareness about the assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis, in order to free them up to break patterns and try to be a bit more creative. While he’s making his case for breaking patterns, he reminds us why we have them to begin with:

“The human brain uses patterns, structures or routines – cognitive scientists call these mental models – to make us more effective and efficient.”

This is the part where I usually have to leave the room or look down at the floor so I don’t laugh out loud what I’m thinking in that moment which is, “You mean all human brains except for yours.”

Ours is a relatively egalitarian household. We share chores, more or less in equal measure. We never actually sat down and divided the jobs, they just ended up falling into the hands of the one who seemed to care the most or had the aptitude for a particular task. I deal with the administration and paperwork. He is Vice-President of renting-a-car. Most mornings I get the kids up and dressed and fed. He makes the morning walk with them to school. I load the dishwasher, and he unloads it. I manage the laundry, because I’m particular about which clothes go in the dryer and which don’t. He does the grocery shopping, because he hates to waste money and prefers to buy in bulk from the The Ed, the cheap grocery store that I find too exasperating to even enter. He enjoys negotiating the best deal for produce in at the street market. While I find open markets a romantic place to look and stroll, my experience of shopping at them is agonizing.

Not that our assignments are written in indelible ink. Sometimes I pick up groceries or walk the girls to school. Sometimes he does a piece of household admin or loads the dishwasher with dirty dishes.
dishwasher
The loading of this appliance, I’ve found, can be satisfying. I relish getting in as many dishes as possible, whilst maintaining optimum cleaning capacity. This equilibrium is essential. Too few dishes haphazardly placed on the racks, and you run an inefficient wash, wasting money and energy. Too many dishes and they don’t get really clean, you have to leave them in for a second wash or do them by hand. You have to strike the right balance.

It’s not rocket science. Plates down below, from the side to center, big dinner and then smaller luncheon plates, followed by saucers. Coffee pot and tall glasses on the tall spokes. Pots and pans or big bowls strategically placed around these mainstays. On the top rack, café-au-lait bowls tucked under the fold-down flap on the side, allowing for shallower accessory bowls and short glasses to rest on top of them. Cups, mugs and other glasses filling up the rest of the upper rack. And in all cases, load from back to front.

Listen, I’m no neatnik. Open my closets and things fall out. I have photo albums from 2003 that haven’t been assembled. My life is filled with colorful piles and partially-finished, imaginative messes; I like a certain amount of organized disarray around me. But when it comes to the dishwasher, well, I figure my strategy saves money and helps the environment. (Honestly, I’ve reconfigured one of his loads and cleared half the space, putting off a dishwasher run for 24-hours.) But when De-facto loads the dishwasher, it makes no sense whatsoever. He has a pattern, I suppose, but it’s a rather pathetic one.

Well, you may say, his job isn’t to load the dishes, it’s to unload. But wouldn’t you think that after years of unloading a dishwasher that’s so precisely arranged, he might notice some kind of a pattern? We’ve lived together for nearly ten years. He’s probably unloaded that dishwasher at least 2,000 but probably more like 3,000 times. Wouldn’t your pattern-recognition machine pick up something?


Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
clock
And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
yin-yang-man
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

But let me just say this: I really really miss my secretary.


Aug 3 2009

Random Evolution

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that my two daughters came out of the same womb. At first glance, their blue eyes and blonde heads – and their complete familiarity with each other – make it obvious that they’re sisters. But spend some time with them, and you’d find they might as well have crawled out of
Shortpants_listtwo entirely different gene pools. It’s a real case for nature over nurture.

Short-pants says things like, “When you’re old, I promise to take care of you.” She even wrote, voluntarily, a list of things to do when Mama and Papa are too old which includes the tasks of making breakfast, buying what we need, earning money and doing everything we ask her to do. It’s enough to actually make you look forward to getting old.

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, approaches aging differently. She asks the question, “When you die, can I have that necklace?”

I don’t mean to paint Buddy-roo as jewelry-grubbing hound. Except she is a material girl and she’s very aware of the material world. Not that she is unkind or impolite; on the contrary, she is lovely and funny and sweet. Her requests are innocent. She’s just a wee bit demanding, especially when it has to do with things and having them. No amount of parental re-programming seems to have been able to counter this innate trait of hers. She is the poster child for the economy of obsolescence.

The other day I stopped in front of a store to admire a dress, a sequined little number that glistened in the window. “Do you like it mama?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “It’s pretty wow, isn’t it?” “Why don’t you buy it?” she asked. “I don’t have to buy it,” I answered, spotting a opportunity for a teaching moment, “I can just admire it and appreciate how beautiful it is every time I pass the store window.” Short-pants chimed in, “It’s true, we don’t have to have things to enjoy them.”

“But why don’t you buy it, mama?” I tried to explain again, but she persisted. “You should buy it now, mama. It will look too beautiful on you.” She found it incomprehensible that my attraction to the dress didn’t include an immediate aspiration to purchase it.

Does this come from me? It certainly doesn’t come from De-facto, who hasn’t bought himself a new piece of clothing since the late ‘90s. All I could think to do was stare at her.

“And when you’re tired of wearing that dress,” she said, “you can give it to me.”

Last week I was sequestered, more or less, with a gang of mathematicians and scientists who were charged with generating ideas for research projects under the subject heading Maths of Life. (As a passport-carrying American, I’m more inclined to say math, but being on this side of the Atlantic, I went with the European usage.) This particular workshop brought together the domains of maths and biology, asking a collected brain trust to think about the application of mathematics (oh, it is plural after all) to better understand – or even to accelerate – evolution. They were throwing about words like genes and genomes and genotypes and phenotypes. And stochastic. This was a word I heard a lot. Stochastic means, according to one of the maths experts, the incorporation of randomness.
helix_model
Oh but don’t I witness this at home! How much of whom my little creatures have become is simply the incorporation of a random combination of genetic codes? The strange splitting and mixing of De-facto’s chromosomes with mine, the seemingly random and yet stunningly deliberate mix of our DNA creates a humbling little piece of evolution. In this case, the continuation of a surname, born out in two very distinguished pathways.

When we returned home after being away for a week, Short-pants complained about our absence. I reminded her that sometimes her Papa and I have to go away to work, to earn money to keep our household going, to have food to eat, clothes to wear, so we can do cool things like take music and theater classes and travel to interesting places.

“But why don’t we just sell some of the things we own?” she asked, “Then you wouldn’t have to go to work and we could all stay home together, all the time.”

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, greeted us with a different sentiment than her sister. She poked through my suitcase, pretending to help me unpack. And then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore:

“Didn’t you bring me home a present?”