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What would the Wertis say?

An expatriate in my own land

Shall we drive?

3ptturnAccording to the state of Alabama, the Younger Daughter is now officially allowed to drive to Kale Smoothie Palace and Bendy Yogastore all by herself. And if you need anyone to go the grocery store, I’m yer man, she informs me.

To celebrate this milestone, there should be a madcap solo excursion somewhere, the vehicular equivalent of running through a field with outstretched arms. Free! No sullen, mall-hating parents to grumble at you when you inform them that you are out of jeans. Why do we not leap in the car with joyful abandon at every opportunity, as does the dog? Which must be a little how it feels for her, to leave the house, on her own, electric fence switched off. Sniffing the air and trotting off into a world of adventure with only her wits to guide her.

But her wits aren’t bad. She has started to give Socratic advice. (“I always find that if I need to ask someone for their opinion, I already know how I really feel about it.”) She is telling me about a poem she is reading and her thesis for the essay she is writing, which involves music and meter, the dance of family life. It’s a paper she could be writing in college. It’s one of those moments, when I see her adult life taking shape.

At the end of the day, we attend a presentation at school by a senior who talks about the history and evolution of human rights. I had suggested she attend, to see what lies ahead. Because you do that as a parent, whether it’s a toy or a novel or a concert. You expose them to ideas and experiences, not to tell them what to like or think, but to let them know the range of possibilities.

These presentations are the final projects of a group of seniors who have found a seminar topic to apply to an area where they have a personal interest, while connecting it to a particular period of history. Each one is like an intellectual butterfly release. The ideas they have hatched are unwrapped and something crumpled and dark is unfurled to reveal brilliant color and pattern. The Younger Daughter is already formulating her own topic as we drive home. She is done with driving for the day.

Or maybe not.

When we are home from school, she proposes that for kicks she heads out into rain and rush hour traffic to take an ENO strap — a bit of webbing for a camping hammock that will not be used tonight, what with the rain — to a friend’s house, a friend she will see at school tomorrow. It is just about the most pointless but symbolic act of solo travel I can imagine.

I say no, even while realizing that the force of growth and becoming as a driver and a thinker are intertwined. To try to push against one would just distort the overall shape of the whole. I can say no to the really stupid ideas but need to stand back and be prepared to be amazed, from the back seat, the driveway, as she goes solo.

Tidying the playhouse

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Still Life with a Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen Van Utrecth, 1642

Hey, happy new year. I’m back. I am banal and topical.

I have spent the past two weeks reading Marie Kondo, reading about Marie Kondo, and tidying up.

She tells you to start by visualizing why you want to tidy.

Ugh! I hate this part. What brings you here? I dunno, so I can breathe, move on, do other things. Light, space, air. Clean desk. I need to face: the horror of the toy closet, which also contains towels, some of my father’s photo archives and his computer and scanner; the horror of the storeroom in the garage, which contains his genealogical papers, various items of my and my daughters’ clothes to be gotten rid of, the requisite cubic feet of paper products that give our household a sense of security (or do they?), a panel of stained glass that came with the house, cans of paint, my childhood dollhouse on a work table that could be a desk on which to put the scanner. The storeroom is a room we talk about converting into my office.

The sad irony is that I store a milk crate full of drafts of stories and novels in our laundry room, which I bitterly describe as my office when I feel that I have hit some kind of middle management glass ceiling in the Department of Laundry. There is a desktop for folding that is covered in clothes. My actual desk, in a hallway, seems to collect bank statements and random papers. My actual vision, if I were going to digress on Pinterest, would be a clean work surface with a jar of flowers on it and a view of the woods.

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Or perhaps a view of Central Park. Or W. 61st Street.

These are the floor plans of an apartment that I was sent by a Manhattan real estate company that has somehow gotten my name. It’s a good design. It could be our pied à terre after we win Powerball.

I am drawn to the idea of a capsule wardrobe and yet I still have clothes from high school and college. And lots of letters. And drafts. And postcards. And books. And old cell phones. And a CD collection. And some of these things bring me joy and some don’t. I had lots of friends who were able to sweep a school year into a trash bag every summer. I never could. I envied them the confidence to move on to the next phase of their lives and pitied them the foolhardy way they had discarded their personal histories.

The real estate agent sends apartment listings along with market analysis, as if the only thing standing between me an a bijoux 1BR for 3M was a failure to recognize a great opportunity.

And these apartments are roughly 600 square feet big, or rather small. Even if I could scrape together the funds, I would never fit into it with all my stuff. You’ll notice there is only one closet.

The KonMari approach is connected to economic theories that my husband and I have discussed over the years, so the thinking behind it equates to very rational principles, but then she’s got this Pee-Wee Hermanesque  habit of thanking her stockings or a screwdriver for their service. You’re hugging your sweater to hear it speak to your heart.

Seriously, Marie Kondo and Pee-Wee Herman are almost the same person.

His Playhouse appears cluttered and manic, it’s filled with the kind of kitsch that was so endemic in the ’80s, which were spitting distance from the ’50s; it does not have the minimalist aesthetic one imagines for Kondo’s living quarters, and yet everything has a precise place and an important role and all of his things bring him joy and he communes with them all (Globey, Chairry, Conky, Magic Screen.)

Watch Pee-Wee make breakfast in the opening credits, then read Marie Kondo’s description of what she does when she comes home and unpacks her handbag. It’s eerie.

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Sparks of joy

Watching the videos brought back Saturday mornings in college when we parked our hangovers in front of the television to enjoy Pee-Wee in all his campy glory and Ralph Bakshi’s trippily reimagined “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.” The world was changing and starting to speak our language.

I also notice that Globey, both in voice and manner and the creaky way his head spins on its axis, is very much the predecessor of The Moon from “The Mighty Boosh.” See video clips below.

I attacked the horrific toy cupboard at Thanksgiving, dumping out boxes of Playmobil and Barbies and American Girls and their apparatus. The girls helped me to choose what goes and what stays. As groovy as they are, I  decided to sell Dawn and her friends on eBay. I snapped pictures and counted minidresses.

“Because looking at them makes Mommy sad,” I overheard the Younger Daughter tell the Older. Kids read you better than you read yourself. I sold the lot. No regrets. I hadn’t realized it, but they did make me sad.

This was the first moment where I thought, right, keep going. Then I started reading about Marie Kondo. Then I bought the book and spent the weekend going through my clothes and filling bags and snapping more photos because the Younger Daughter and I thought we would try selling on a website.

I have not yet experienced sweater-hugging sparks of joy but I was able to let two beloved but moth-holey cardigans go into a charity bag by silently thanking them for the memories they held. One was from when the girls were babies. It was soft and warm and comfortable, but cut in a way that let me feel pulled together. I wore it to the park and to work. The store it came from was located on the steep, narrow street I walked up from the tube or the bus. It had a tiny bay window in which was displayed a celery-colored suit that I admired the first summer we lived in London. I think it was in the sales that winter, but I realized I didn’t want to own it, I just liked to see it. This could be yours, this could be you, but without having to let it and that person you had been go at a later date.st s

I moved, in sequence, from clothes to books. As I put books into shopping bags for the library book shop, something waved to me from the edge of a dust jacket. A baby scorpion? I took it outside and crushed it. This is significant, something about ridding the house of poison or the hidden dangers of keeping things you don’t want; the book was one I had permanently loaned out, which had been returned, and since it was a really good book, edited by a friend, I had taken it back, but not, tellingly, alphabetized it with the rest of the fiction. (Yes, I alphabetize fiction and spices.) It was on a shelf of random hardcovers, several of which joined it in the shopping bag, never having been appreciated or loved. Or maybe it is safer to leave things as they are and the scorpions undisturbed, but that doesn’t sound right.

I share a “free to good homes” note in our work newsletter, for the extra dolls and the marble run that had been boxed up, ready for its next destination for at least a year. People respond within minutes. I act fast and get a note that evening that the children in aftercare loved the toys and this is exactly the point. That morning they languished and dragged me down, by evening they were back in play.

Yesterday, I moved on to papers. I threw out instruction manuals and old utility bills. This will be a hard stage. I can’t fathom putting all the paper in one place. Does the milk crate with the story drafts count as paper or sentimental objects?

The vision as starting point may change. And fitting into a 600-square-foot apartment is not, even now, the real goal, but I think a working space for each of us is. At the same time, I am aware that all over the world, people are in terrible situations where they have nothing but what they can carry. There is something sickening about the thought of people in homes laden with unwanted consumer goods. Think of a fairy tale, where the hero is cast out into the world with only the acorn in the pocket, the crust of bread, a magic word. Whoever you are, whatever your situation, use what you have. Pass along what you no longer need. Joy, whatever sparks it, wherever it resides, flickers, flares up, dies down, travels. None of it is guaranteed to last or reside in the same place forever anyway.

Enjoy the videos.

You’re driving. Me crazy

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.03.48 PMLearning to drive as a teenager in Manhattan was a hypothetical situation. Like stenography and monogrammed linens, it might be of use in the future, but was not essential for my immediate life. I looked forward to driving, sort of, but I didn’t think I would be particularly good at it. The whole left/right thing was off-putting, as was the fact that you could literally kill yourself and other people if you made a mistake.

We watched appalling movies. State troopers described crash scenes. A shifty-eyed man drove defensively among trucks. A camera panned down a street of danger. Children chased balls into traffic. People were distracted. On insurance claim forms, the instructor told us, people always use the phrase “came out of nowhere.”

Kids from the school down the street joined us for driver’s ed. A miasma of snark and boredom and bureaucracy filled the room along with so many rules and facts that were in equal parts blindingly obvious and pointlessly obscure (tire treads, visualizing 50 yards). “Must I signal others,” became a catchphrase after a friend asked a question—a deliberately stupid question? A question that was intended to point out the pedantry of the manual? The rules? The instructor? Our classmates?

It would be another eight years before I actually had a driver’s license. I drove infrequently for years on my permit. With my parents on a highway, heart pounding as I approached a narrow bridge. With my friend, John, in Poughkeepsie. With my fiancé, who would insist that a condition of marriage was that I convert my tattered permit into a legitimate license, now that we were of age for car rental. It’s like the football test, I grumbled. I passed. The wedding was on.

And then, somehow, we ended up in a place where you have to drive everywhere, ceaselessly, because without a car you are a prisoner of time and the sun, the lack of sidewalks and the sprawl.

When the time came for the younger daughter, she was ready, could see a need, we already owned a car. She downloaded the app for the written test, signed up for driving lessons, asks to drive all the time, while I clutch the handle over my seat, bracing myself.

“You just don’t want to admit,” she says after a harrowing turn, “that I’m an amazing driver.”

Or: “I could just keep driving and take us to Panera.” Maybe it wasn’t Panera. I don’t know why she would want to go there particularly. Aim higher in your fantasies, I’d say. But I’m too busy willing us to live to know exactly where she might take us, a sort of crazy Thelma and Louise hit the Parkway kind of thing brewing. The Parkway, you know, from the song.

“I feel like when I’m driving I have so much control.”

I am writing this when she asks me if we can go to Panera for breakfast tomorrow. Really, Panera? I was just mocking you in my blog about that. Why Panera? Everyone goes somewhere for breakfast, she says.

Then: “But, you’re blogging about me? Really, that’s so exciting because you haven’t written anything about me in ages. I’m like Britney Spears I’m so desperate for attention. But I said I was an amazing driver, not an awesome driver. That makes me sound like a camp counselor who wears cargo pants.”

IMG_5581When the kids were little and acting up my mom friends and I would say this action song joke where we would point at the child and put our hands on a pretend steering wheel and point at ourselves and then dial our fingers around our ears. The child would stop for a moment and work it out. It broke the tension. It made them laugh. Diversion. Trickery. Mom tricks.

Keys, please.

She has a shirt from her lessons—in America you get a T-shirt for everything, even going to the orthodontist—the tagline of which is “Helping nervous parents since 1975.”

The symbolism of it all is obvious.

I hand her the keys.

Watch this space

10408568_10152955358562857_1248336288602059620_nOne of the nice things about where I live is that it is laid back. Traffic is light. Truck-sized parking is free and easy. If you go to a big concert downtown it’s a flat fee of $5 to park. You’re not having to do crazy things to get a ticket or a table or a seat or a place in line. Usually there isn’t a line. There are no rat runs on the way to school. And so we are not at each other’s throats.

Until recently.

It was a little crazy when the Lilly Pulitzer for Target went on sale. And, recently, we have encountered nervous dog-owners, the likes of which one finds in Chicago, where dogs live cloistered lives in apartments. It’s going to take a lot of change for this place to be like Chicago, but change is coming. I can smell it like an infusion of muddled kale.

It was a beautiful night, perfect weather for sitting outside and listening to music at one of the converted mills. Bring your dog. We were meeting friends. My husband and I were arriving separately. My younger daughter, who was with him, is texting me: hurry, parking full, park on street, street full.

Normally, there is ample parking at the mill. They have a field where you can park and men with illuminated pointer things to guide you to your spot. One never has to do much in the way of looking for a spot. One forgets how to parallel park.

In the gloaming you can still discern the outlines that define alternative culture. I pull into a side street and park. I have just switched off the lights, when there is a rapping at the window. An oldish woman in an ivory housedress with a tan and navy geometric print and kind of askew white hair is telling me, You can’t park here. My son is coming over and he needs to park here.

Continue reading “Watch this space”

My Disney diary

Day One: Gray is the new pink

2015-02-05 18.48.50Your Disney Experience begins long before you arrive. You are supposed to pre-select the color of your wristband, which you will use as a room key, admissions ticket and credit card. It probably records biometric data.

If you don’t log into the app before you arrive to select a color, you get the gray band of shame. I am going to play it off like I chose gray because it goes with everything. It’s a sophisticated neutral.

At dinner, L. spotted an Amish family, the woman in a long dress and white cap, man and boy in bowl haircuts and green shirts. Visitors?? Talent??

Classical trio plays music from Frozen as little girls in netting skirts twirl on the pavement. One girl clutches a character doll in each hand. You can buy cocktails in go cups. There are enormous Lego sculptures. There are souvenir shops at every turn. One out of five people are wearing or carrying Disney merchandise.

The shoreline of Downtown Disney is illuminated. Fake water tower, fake hot air balloon. After only a few hours here the phrase Downtown Disney sounds normal. My husband laughs and asks if I wish I was staying in a loft.

He has stayed home with the younger daughter. I am here with the older daughter and her dance group. I have written previously about the frenetic pace and professionalization of children’s activities, all of which seem bound for state or national competition, and how this is a thing I deeply question, but a special needs dance group is both special and different; it is the exception. The promotion of a program that provides her with a network of friends and advocates was something we wanted to support. She was psyched. A dance team trip to perform at Disney has been the hyperbolic theoretical example of the crazy times in which we live and A Thing I Would Never Do. Reader, I’m doing it. I am on the boat in a fake river.

Day Two: Standing ovation

2015-02-06 15.58.52Where do you begin? There are so many parks and rides and experiences. There are singalongs and parades. There are fast passes and fast pass pluses. Some rides and experiences are booked a year in advance.

The kids’ performance, the reason for our being here, will take place at a waterside stage in Downtown Disney. They leave ahead of us and we, the parents, follow, with an hour to kill before the show.

When people talk about the Disneyfication of a place, New York City for instance, mainly, it is this: unnaturally clean and wholesome, concept places and chains, “immersive shopping,” safe, expensive, banal. And something darker, the eradication of the place where I grew up, where the old speakeasies, the used-clothing stores, you know the rant, become Pradas and Rainforest Cafes, so that it appears to exist, but has been taxidermized.The 19th century facades of my old neighborhood are just as fake and scrubbed up as the ones here. There are three food trucks parked by the water. The vibe is hyper-normal 2015-02-06 16.00.14-1contemporary. Everything has been designed to create the affect of a thing with a history, a provenance, but it can feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek where the characters think it’s Earth or their own past, but it’s formless Martians channeling human memories to appear like the soda jerks and elementary school teachers of the crew’s youth. It looks like an old, cool dive, but it’s chain, but it’s so familiar, so comfortable. Captain, we have to get out of here before we are drawn into this illusion.

Strangest person spotted: a mom in a knee-length Cinderella costume, black choker, heels. Blonde hair piled up. Little girl in regular clothes, maybe a set of ears. This is mom’s Disney experience.

By the time we parents arrive there an audience has assembled, an audience of unaffiliated people, actual members of the public. The founder of our program introduces the group and explains how their mission is to make the arts accessible to people with special needs, how the program has grown to serve over 500 children and adults. She urges people to take this idea back to their own communities.

The kids are having a great time on stage, not nervous, or at least not showing it, they are beaming, and for that, for them, the fact that we are sitting in the middle of America’s collective fantasy and these kids, each of whom has a particular set of challenges, but has found his or her way to this point, where they feel public acclaim in a place they have always known existed, is pretty, for lack of a better word, magical.

Disney is such a touchstone — it covers such a broad array of characters, it has infiltrated everyone’s childhood in one way or another. To perform here is to be anointed with some kind of pixie dust that will stay with them, I hope, in the days and years to come.

They receive standing ovations and on the bus home they are given special performer mouse ears. My daughter declines the mouse ears because she doesn’t wear hats.

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Day Three: Yo, Mickey

At dawn, I walk down to the cafeteria to get breakfast. There is steam rising off the pool, happy vibraphone music plays from speakers hidden in the landscaping. We have to be at The Epcot Center at 8:15 a.m. for the kids to go to a dance workshop.

As we disembark from the bus at Epcot, a mom asks if we are here for the princess breakfast. This is a normal-sounding question. This is a place where you send a text to your friends saying that you are in starting your day in Fantasyland, which many of us may do in real life on a regular basis; here it is an actual place on a map.

2015-02-07 11.08.31-1The world does not open until 11 a.m. We wander through Norway, Mexico, England and France. The French bakery is open. A gay couple with gelled hair and tiny eyeglasses drink flutes of champagne. Each country is staffed by people of its nationality. All cultures are reduced to their most easily recognizable traits. In America, they advertise turkey legs, frozen beverages and beer.

At the turn of the century, Coney Island featured exhibits emphasizing the exotic aspects of foreigners. They recreated great sites of the world and moments in history, a trip to the moon, a tenement fire. The grandeur and grandiosity are part of showmanship. Disney is a more polished, sanctified, larger scale version of this concept. We, who believe in the magic, have become the barkers.

2015-02-07 15.11.40We ride through watery canals, along tracks, in the darkness. Voices narrate our experience for us. There is no need to read anything. There is nothing to read. We sit on a ferris wheel chair in front of a screen that fills our entire field of vision so that it appears we are soaring over mountains, through orange groves, across the Golden Gate bridge.

We travel through a storybook version of Mexico. We travel back in time to the beginning of human civilization and see cavemen, Romans, monks, Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, and the invention of binary code. Everything they put in a diorama they lay claim to. It becomes part of the Disney experience. Human history? We’ve got that.

2015-02-07 09.40.25Disney is for people who don’t like travel but are willing to put up with all the unpleasant aspects of it — endless queuing, crowds, being in a constant state of expectation, consulting your map and being out all day — in exchange for safety, convenience and familiarity. There is no language barrier, no currency to decode, no complicated transport system, no risk. If you were in an actual place, you could escape the crowds, leave the center, have an adventure or even a catastrophe, but here you are inexorably pulled from one attraction to the next, flowing in a river of people, wishing periodically to sit down, sitting, flying, flowing, pumped through a system of entertainment.

There are people with lanyards or vests jangling with metal souvenir badges. There is an endless variety of mouse ears. Whole families don mouse ears, a style for each. A woman in an expensive looking Mickey sweater and a luxurious red velvet headband with a large Minnie bow. A 10-year-old white boy with his carefully curated hip hop look sprawls on the bus next to his little sister. He has on a crisp Mickey cap with graffiti letters.

Among the most enthusiastic of the visitors are the Japanese youth. Four girls in bright tutus and sneakers photograph each other outside of Epcot. Two girls in blue and purple zipper sweatshirts with grey horns on the hoods stroll through “France.” Young couples hand-in-hand, in coordinated outfits.

There are websites devoted to eating at Disney, Disney for grown-ups sites that recommend coffee and cocktails. Surely in the layers of the empire there must be a sub-Disney with after-hours activities, cabaret and character role playing. There are sites with tips for figuring out the system, shortening the wait, booking your meals, getting upgrades, getting closer and closer into the core of Disney. The idea is that this not be a one-off. It’s not a question of if you will return, but when.

The best thing about this trip for my daughter is being with her friends. It is like college. You can see your friends all the time. You eat meals together, you run into each other, it’s all just a huge buffet of experiences.

An environment like this makes you ask fundamental questions like, What is fun? What is relaxation? What is the point of a vacation? Are they providing the backdrop or the main event?

2015-02-08 14.05.12Day Four: Take me to the egress

There is a national high school cheerleading competition going on. Total number of injured cheerleaders spotted today: nine (seven in wheelchairs, two in air casts).

Another thing about Disney is the scale of the operation. They keep the places looking smaller, the lines appearing shorter, so you don’t you realize how huge it is. Everything is built on a slightly miniature scale. Hotels with modest “riverside” frontage go back and back and back. Tiny cottage fronts expand in caverns when you enter. We eat lunch in a place that serves hundreds, a buffet with characters.

My daughter is reprimanded by Donald Duck for touching his bill as she blows him a kiss. Hey, kid, hands off the costume. But Donald is a splenetic character so maybe he’s not really pissed, but I get a pissed vibe from him. And when the heads are through, they’re through, off duty. Tigger and Winnie leave the photo call in Fantasyland later like celebrities, flanked front and back by minor cast members. Don’t even think about it.

Road signs have mouse ears. Streets have names like World Drive and Backstage Lane. Everyone is a cast member.

The parks are designed for young, old, with wheelchair ramps, and some rides that can adapt to wheelchairs. Map legends code the rides for accessibility and speed. The bathrooms are numerous and easy to find. And yet despite this more humane view of guests, the parks are still designed with carny knowledge of human nature which involves controlling and managing crowds and the flow of people, whoever those people are, however they may travel.

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Day Five: Let it Go

Someone told me that if you bring your cup to the cafeteria, refills are free so I have been taking the coffee cup from my room to the cafeteria every morning and either availing myself of this “amenity” or “stealing coffee.” But this morning, I forget my cup. The coffee at the resort is so bad that I will not pay for it again, so I will forgo coffee until we get to the airport where there is Starbucks.

The bus from the hotel to the airport is the resort’s last chance to hook you. It is a fascinating lesson in marketing. Just as there is Disney clothing to suit every taste, so too are there deep layers of segmentation and customer engagement strategies.

The Disney bus video blasts us with classic animation, stories about the friendly grounds staff and the dancing Main Street USA cast member, the glass-blower, the chocolate covered apple people, ads for the new rides.

I learn from an interview with a cartoonist the definitive answer to the difference between Pluto and Goofy. They are both dogs, but while Pluto identifies canine, Goofy identifies human.

2015-02-06 15.58.38If you yearn for travel beyond the confines of the parks, there are Disney Adventure package holidays, where you can have a “hassle-free” experience in other countries.

Meanwhile, the driver launches into this monologue about his own Disney journey. I can’t figure out if it was his idea to do it or part of a script. It is the first time on the trip where I am stumped by the question, Is this real?

He is from New Jersey. His first trip to Disney was in the early ’70s, when it was just the Magic Kingdom, and he thought it was wonderful. He spends ten years driving buses and then gets the gig here in Orlando. It’s not exactly a story of a life’s ambition to work at Disney per se, but it has narrative unity. It feels like a success.

Now he lives so close that he can see the castle from his house, hear the fireworks at night and the whistle of the steam train in the morning. I wonder if all the workers live on the grounds. He tells us about the Disney health plan. He tells us about D23, the fan club for serious fans, a kind of inner circle, where they preview movies and have the Hollywood voice talent perform. The woman who sings “Let it Go” came in 2013. Angelina Jolie turned up for a screening of Maleficent. This is good marketing. The tribe creates the buzz, a ripple effect.

Does he tell this story to every busload of passengers or only when the spirit moves him? Or do they tell all the drivers to talk to the passengers and our driver from the airport just didn’t open up? Do they have a list of talking points? Make it sound personal. I am glad, even this late in the trip, to have encountered him. Most of the cast members I have been professionally friendly but not particularly engaged. Whether he is making the best of a crappy condo with constant amusement park noise or living the dream, he has woven a narrative and, sitting at the helm of the bus, he is a cast member starring in his role, which is the stuff of the videos we have been watching on this very bus. Everyone has a role. You can make of it what you will.

They release us gently into the Orlando airport.

It’s 10:30 and the headache is creeping in. Maybe not wise to have left having coffee so long. We had cleared security and were riding the monorail to the gate when I realized that we had left our our carry-on at the security scrum. TSA had pulled it because there was toothpaste inside. The real world is hard.

“Should I delete the My Disney app?” my daughter asks when we are on the plane.

“You might as well,” I say.

“Because we’re not going back?”

And yet it will be this: a time she will remember as fun and special, a vacation that just the two of us took together, no bickering with her sister. Because there is so much build-up to a Disney trip, she was psyched from the beginning. When you tell people you are going, they say how much fun you will have. People have positive reactions that reenforce the value of the experience. They will tell you their favorite rides. If you said you were going to an American city, they might tell you mixed things, or say how that’s alright for you but they’re not a fan of that city, or cities in general. Europe is far. People may say they have never been or they may say how lucky you are. With Disney you just get a full-on happy reaction. Even if people think Disney is stupid they won’t say it because they wouldn’t want to ruin it for you. People can relate, they’re excited, you’re lucky, but lucky like we’re all lucky together. Disney belongs to all of us. When you get back, they will still be excited for you. Maybe, anyway, reality is overrated.

The urge to crack the Disney code is such that both my husband and I start to calculate whether or not I would have saved money on the meal plan, but this implies that next time you will get it right. And next time and next time. As I would tell my daughter, it was good trip, we had fun, I’m glad we went, but, as I said at the restaurant, Step away from the duck.

Breathe differently

vogue_esYesterday there were 11,603 emails in my gmail inbox, 5,081 of them unread, of which 72 are from Brooks Brothers, who have been sending me increasingly hysterical, now twice-daily, notifications about their sale. Usually it is more trouble to delete an email than to skim past it, but clearly this has to change. It is a kind of passive digital hoarding. Yesterday, the younger daughter kept me company and offered opinions as I emptied out dresser drawers and purged clothes. I let her have my Beached at Bellevue’s t-shirt from our friends’ party at a Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in the fun 90s. And now I am diving into the wreck, with you and my old cat to keep me company, to declutter my inbox.

The oldest emails are from December 2008. We have advertised for a nanny on The Gumtree. Each response tells a story. One of the women who responded was a French national champion boxer. One applicant writes, “Need to inform that i have 2 years son, and will be having him with me while serving at your house/home.” The applicant pool always reveals little data points about what the current scene was in terms of who was coming from where (then Turkey, South America); and I am reminded of the incredible stress of assessing the sanity and trustworthiness of a parade of strangers to whom you would be handing over essentially your entire life: the wellbeing of your children, the keys to your house, the cats, and most of my salary. Mostly it worked out well, but this round is on the heels of a disaster, which means I am doubting my judgement.

Some candidates had fantastic qualifications, some wrote really personable letters. Some people never turned up for the interview. One person wrote afterwards: “hi dear are u still interested in appointing me pls let me know and i m sorrry i was not available on the said day bcoz of some personal reason.” I find that I am unable to revisit this correspondence. I do a search for all Gumtree emails, more than 100, and hit delete. I don’t want to go back to that time.

What is the purpose of saving anything? What wisdom can I pull out of this in retrospect? What did I find amidst all of the logistics emails, those short exchanges about arrival times and birthday presents and tennis and kids’ activities that pile up like so much powdery snow that caves in windows.

The beauty of the unsubscribe option 
If you haven’t been opening those newsletter emails, unsubscribe. Stop worrying that you will miss a sale or a great recipe. Unsubscribe. Get less. Go seek.

The forgotten detail
From a letter I sent to friends in London and family in America about our initial repatriation, a sign in front of a church: “Will your eternal home be smoking or non-smoking?”

The good friend
A friend wrote to say goodbye when we left London. She states that she is not good with goodbyes but that our friendship has been important and we will be missed. I love that she wrote it.

The prophetic detail
My older daughter, describing her state of mind five years ago, had said, “I feel that I am stuck in a bramble of worries,” poetic and also upsetting; we haven’t been able to free her from the thicket yet and we had no idea at the time how apt her words were though they were part of what had prompted us to seek help.

Learn to be ruthless
By the end of the day I have chipped away at this accumulation and gotten the number down to 5,452, which is still horrific, it’s still stacks of newspaper in the hallway, folded milk carton  crazy, and I know that I have to keep at it and also put some rules in place to keep this stuff from piling up, like just delete the junk when it comes in, don’t save the stuff that you can find elsewhere, like amazon order emails, but what else? What about the letters that matter, from your parents and your friends? What do you do? I heard some grisly story about hoarders trapped under the rubble of their own hoardings. Softly falls the snow. Each request to rate this or that, each 5kb of thanks, thought you would enjoy this, great to see you, adds up although you are not constructing a narrative that will amount to anything. There will never be time to follow each trail to the truth of a person or a situation by these slight wisps that will just weigh you down without any substance. But to delete the email is to erase some part of the person, it feels unkind, though of course that is just the kind of thinking that turns you into a person with thousands of emails and no time or reason to tunnel back into them.

As I scrolled through the last five years, observing the rise and fall of friendships and affiliations, the pool newsletters, the team sign-ups, the volunteer rotas, the footprints of our family, my husband had been watching a wilderness survival show. At the end of the episode, the host delivers the epilogue. Quoting the gospel of home organizers and capsule wardrobe bloggers everywhere, he says, “When you strip away the clutter it allows you to focus on the things that are really important.”

To quote the poem I referenced at the start of the post, let me leave you with a few lines:

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

—from “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

So, happy new year, readers, friends, family, people whose emails I have been re-reading today. Thanks for sharing the journey; for keeping me company; for existing, for reading and writing. I have tarried in the murky deep all day and look forward to the clear light of tomorrow, a little more focused and able to hack away at the brambles in 2015.

Image from A Lovely Being, an image from Vogue Spain story inspired by Grey Gardens.

Handle with care

regan-chesterfieldIt’s a certain kind of woman in her 90s who thinks a package being delivered to her house might be a bomb, and then opens it anyway.

And this is why I was sending her cookies and peppermint bark, because throughout my life she has been one of those important people I am fortunate to know.

The package was kind of battered by the time it arrived. The address was faint. She had been outspoken online and thought maybe this was retaliation.

But one is right to approach such a package with caution and to wonder at the sender’s state of mind. The holiday season is fraught with danger and irrationality.

It was I who prepared the sinister package, in a kind of divine bargaining. I could not muster the spirit to send out the usual holiday card, in which I cannot write the perfect note that tells you what I think you want to know about our family, or says exactly everything except what you want to know about our family, or even what is most important about or to our family, or provide that picture in which I may or may not have photoshopped someone’s head or present us as people without a care in the world, or scare you with our imperfection. Which is why the cards I send are a family photo and a note. Here we are. Another year has passed. We are thinking about you. We have stamps.

I just hit a point last November when I thought, re cards, pass. Can’t do it this year. People have their limits and they should know them. I hadn’t read this post by Brené Brown, which two friends just posted on Facebook, but I had a similar series of thoughts and revelations, and decided to let that particular ring of the circus go dark. I felt a little guilty. It was like cutting class. And I baked. Was that cheating? I don’t know my limits. And then our friend thought she was getting a bomb. No, it’s just me, undetonated, ticking things off a list.

Another part of the bargaining, if you let me not send cards, I will… reply to the cards we get so that people don’t think they have been “dropped,” but I suspect that I didn’t get to do as many of these as came in. So if we normally exchange cards and I didn’t respond even with an email, I am sorry.

We decided to do cards again this year. I had known I was only taking/being granted a year off. I ordered the stamps a while ago so I didn’t have to panic buy generic ones from Costoco. And then at Thanksgiving, when we were dressed for dinner, I asked a friend who was joining us to take the picture with my phone (I had warned him in advance.) And as soon as we got home I ordered the cards. So far so good.

Pulling the addresses together is always a bit of production because I have two computer printouts that I use, from different databases, from the 90s, then my Filofax, which I bought when I started my second real job, then my phone contacts, email and Facebook messages. It’s shocking how much a list can change when you skip a year. But the nice thing about doing the cards is how it brings all the people of your life back into focus. I sent several messages out to collect the addresses of people who have moved or might have moved, which led to a little catching up, which reenforced the value and purpose of what I was doing. I read over some of the cards from last year, the cards I was saving so that when the craziness of the holidays abated, I would sit down at a writing desk with light filtering through the window treatment of choice and pen words that would be worthy of the recipients. Or I would chuck the cards in the cupboard under the bar and blog about it a year later.

I make cookie dough and my daughter rolls it out. We listen to Serial until we are all caught up. I do the lights on the tree, she decorates it. We put Christmas music on her phone and run it through the bluetooth speakers (these would make a great for someone on your list). The technology is working. I address envelopes. There are still roughly two weeks until Christmas. Getting through the holidays tests your ability to pace yourself, to let the point unfold. But when it does you realize that each of these moments is a gift and this is instead a test of your ability not to endure but to be. The people will receive their cards, sent with love and realistic expectations of self and others. Be careful as you open cards and packages; the idea of perfection is the hazardous material within.

Keep calm and win Christmas: 10 last-minute gift ideas

keep calm and don't blinkOriginally published in 2012.

The best laid plans can go astray in the run-up to Christmas and you may find yourself having to buy a last-minute gift, as I did yesterday.

In the weeks leading up to holiday I have felt that I have been engaged in a kind of stress challenge, a triathlon for moms that measures thoughtfulness, organization and endurance.

Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” recently had guests Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, and journalist Deborah Orr on to debate the extent to which an Asda supermarket commercial was celebrating reality or perpetuating gender stereotypes and whether or not Christmas is a mother’s realm, her undoing, or her finest hour.

It hits a nerve, right?

In an anthropological aside, an American ad would never end with giving the mom a glass of wine. Instead mom gets external validation, male approval or female envy, a sticky kiss from her son or Santa winking from the rooftop or the husband’s arm around her shoulders.

So, here, in an effort to help you in this final push before the big day, or as on online note to self as I train for next year, are some last-minute gift ideas, for men or women: Continue reading “Keep calm and win Christmas: 10 last-minute gift ideas”

Pumpkin wicked this way comes

monksmarketpumpkinsThe stem is amazing and sculptural, a thick twist of green and grey vine that suggests the violence of the harvest, where a living plant is wrested from the field. The other is a huge, hideous bumpy orange gourd. Another, cream colored and unblemished, tranquil and deathly pale. They are fantastic, unlike the usual run of orange bowling balls that conform to type.

When we ask for a price, the girl isn’t sure and calls her dad over. He hesitates and the pause is significant. The pause is the pause of gauging how much the market will bear, of reassessing the market and determining two things. One is that the cultural value of pumpkins is higher this year. The other is that the farmers are getting the idea that our town has changed from being a simple, unsophisticated, regular place, to one with its share of foolish city folks who will pay absurd prices for pumpkins because they don’t know any better or because they are pressed for time, lack their own fields and/or have been afflicted by the viral creep of Samhain that fills our newsfeeds with a bumper crop of photographs of babies in the pumpkin field. With a little effort every holiday can be that little bit more special. Pumpkins are this year’s seasonal photo op.

Screenshot 2014-10-26 08.18.34The Selection of the Pumpkin is like the selection of the Christmas tree, where you venture into to nature and find the perfect object and then you take it home and bestow upon it all of your family’s whimsy and skill with Pinterest-perfect crafts, to etch your clever idea with a laser or a drill, pinpricking the thick pumpkin shell with a million points of light to create a pointillist effect that will impress the parents who regularly accompany the trick or treaters. Throw in some political commentary with your professionally carved Obama pumpkin. Really think about it. It’s an important part of your family’s brand.

seasonal hoax
seasonal hoax

The farmer would know that people are now buying multiple pumpkins to create displays, that pumpkin spice lattes have had a toxmoplasmosic effect and we are compelled to mark the end of the harvest with more elaboration as we become less connected to it. That fall kicks off an extended season of decorative expectations, starting with scarecrows and the gradual introduction of candles. One pumpkin will not do. One needs hay bales, 4-8 pumpkins, mums, a scarecrow.

How much for the sculptural stem pumpkin? He looks at us, not as the weekly customers who buy his peppers and squash, but as big city pumpkin seekers, the kind of people who don matching sweaters for a trip out to the farm. “Twenty,” he says. What about the bumpy one? “Twenty/Twenty-five?”

There is a food truck parked outside. They have broken ground on the Whole Foods.

“No way,” my husband says. Not because he had a fixed price in his head that he’d be willing to pay for a pumpkin mind you, but it just seems high. This is a reasonable, affordable place where you can buy a house for under $200,000. Don’t be selling us your big city pumpkins.

2014-10-07 11.59.02
Pumpkin season in Indiana

“I was down in Birmingham,” the farmer says, “and that’s what they pay. A man tells me if I have any left next week, the day before Halloween, he’ll give me $40 a piece. I’ve got 200 pumpkins. He said he’d take them all.”

We buy something smaller and more regular for $5, but later my husband wishes we’d gone all out and bought the big one. They’re cool looking. A year from now, the $20 pumpkin will have gone the way of the egg cream. Remember when you used to just buy a pumpkin for $5 and stick a knife in it? Those were the days.

Images: Monks Market, screenshot of the Brooklyn and Bailey YouTube Channel, hoax condom from Snopes, one of a fleet of pumpkin-laden school buses in Indiana.

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