Safekeeping

I am slung back in an armchair in the living room, reading a memoir of sorts: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.  I laugh at one passage and turn the page and then am slammed—she does this, with the simplest of details—and glance into the study to see if my son and husband notice that I am crying.  They don’t.

Thomas is going to high school part-time this year.  He wanted to get out of the house, which makes sense to us.  We’d like to get out of it, too.  It is dark.  The whole state is dark.   But that is another story.

But my son wanted to keep doing math with his dad.  For the last few years, they have been working together through courses from “The Art of Problem-solving,” courses which are heinously and deliciously challenging.  They sit together at my husband’s desk in the study—I can see them from my chair—bent over their papers, murmuring to each other, scratching their chins, working to figure out the starred problems, which are designed to be nearly impossible.  They love this.  But every once in a while they both sit back after a particularly long wrestling match and sigh with frustration and chagrin.  It is often a simple matter of computation that gets them off track.  They can do the hard stuff.  It is that elementary multiplication that bites them on the butt.

Today, while I am sneaking in my tears, they do this again—sit back laughing and shaking their heads.

“The usual stumbling block?” I ask, smiling down the hall at them.

“Yeah, 8 times 7,” says Thomas.  They are grinning cheesey grins at me.  They are proud of themselves, thinking that these blind spots confirm their genius.

“Ooh.  That’s a rough one,” I say sarcastically. I have a role to play in this, too.

“Oh yeah… what is it?” says Thomas.

“56,” I say.

“Just checking,” says Ray.  And then he whispers loudly to Thomas, “write that down.”

He looks up at me, bouncing his eyebrows, enjoying his small coup. “There’s more than one way to get to the answer.”

Then they set their elbows on the desk and rest their chins in their hands, mirror images, and start on the next problem, their pleasure in themselves so absolute that it sheets off of them and sloshes up against the walls.

I hold my book up again, but instead of reading, I look past the pages at them and let those waves wash over me.

Having My Cake and Eating It, Too

We have been walking for hours along the lanes, boulevards and public squares of Toulouse, France, and as usual, I have to pee.  It is a cycle of sorts: in order to avoid the horrific public bathrooms, we must find a cafe, sit down and order something to drink.  Then, after an enjoyable hour of conversation and people-watching, we pay our bill and continue our walk, only to be slammed again an hour or so later by the imperative of a full bladder.  And so the search begins for another cafe and a clean bathroom.

My husband, my son and I trail after my daughter, who strides through the crowded maze of narrow, rose-colored streets in her high-heeled boots, and we dodge and side-step around the couples walking arm-in-arm, the dogs on and off leash, the trash cans and crowded cafe tables and miniature cars parked fully on the narrow sidewalks, all of which seem to weave and bob in my daughter’s wake.

After living here for nearly two semesters, Nina knows much of the city, and she navigates through unfamiliar parts with a combination of luck and intuition.  Toulouse is a university town and isn’t a usual destination for foreign tourists, although it seems chock full of French visitors this week.  The sights my daughter takes us to see would not make it into any guidebook.  They are only of interest to us: the Catholic University where she takes classes in philosophy, the art gallery where she had an internship, the fully automated metro that she is so proud of.

And her favorite restaurants.  We are on our way to find one now: the Lebanese sandwich place that she has been talking about all day.  After a week of rich, butter-laden French food, a freshly made pita stuffed with cucumbers and chickpeas sounds like heaven.

When we arrive, the metal grille is rolled up (all shops have one that can be rolled down and locked into place when the shop is closed for the night—  or the day—  or days—  regular business hours being more flexible than we are used to), but the tiny shop is dark inside, and there are no tables set out on the sidewalk, a sure sign that it is closed.  Still, we walk over to make sure, and it turns out that the owner is standing just inside, talking and cooking.

He lives upstairs, Nina tells us, and uses the shop kitchen to cook for his family.  The man, older, with a very un-French-like pot belly, sees Nina and greets her enthusiastically.  Clearly she is a regular.  They have a short, lively conversation in rapid French, and then he looks at me and asks Nina a question in which I can pick out the word “mama.”  She nods, and he disappears into the dark recess of the shop.

“He is going to give you some cake, Mom,” says Nina, grinning.

“Me?  Why?” I ask as he reappears a moment later with a piece of almond cake wrapped in a yellow paper napkin.  He holds it out to me and waves and disappears while I am stumbling through my “merci beau coup.”

“When the Lebanese want to show respect or esteem for someone, they give gifts to the mother,” Nina replies.

I bite into the cake.  It is simple and not overly sweet.  I will remember this cake long after I have forgotten the tarts and croissants and macaroons.

Trajectory and the Crab Man

After my daughter Nina had been in Cameroon for about a month, her college class took a trip to the northern-most part of the country, where they visited an old man who was a fortune teller.  This is the way it worked: he would put certain tiles into a basket that was filled with water and sand, place some crabs inside and put the lid on.  While the crabs were busy in the basket, the visitor would be  invited to ask three questions, after which the Crab Man would open the lid to the basket, remove the crabs and read whatever message they had left in the form of rearranged tiles.  My daughter was enchanted by him and was delighted with the answers that he gave her.

A few weeks before the semester ended and Nina came home, she and I were remarking on how unpredictable life could be, how we would never have guessed, back when she was a little girl growing up in rural Montana and using pancake scraps to train her chickens to do pirouettes, that she would end up in Cameroon, teaching dance, surviving cholera, attending dowry celebrations and frying plantains.  Things haven’t always turned out as she wished, and her path has not always been easy, but she said to me over the crackling phone, “You know, Mom, I have decided to think of my life in terms of trajectory instead of plans. It just makes more sense.”

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.  We would all be wise to consider her comment, and parents more so than anyone else.   Plans tend to focus on the outcome or destination, such as attending a particular college or being a ballet dancer.  Success or failure often depends on reaching that very specific goal.   Trajectory has much more to do with the start than the finish.  There may be a direction or aim in mind, but with trajectory, our attention is concentrated on constructing a solid platform from which to launch our dreams—  or our children.   Trajectory feels riskier than plans: once we release our children, they are out of our hands and we have that heart-pounding opportunity to watch as the wind and the tide exert their influence.  But I suspect that this is what we parents should be all about.  We lay the groundwork; we sweat the small stuff; we build a foundation of love and trust, of respect and responsibility; we build it as solidly as we can so that the jump, when it comes, is clean and clear and steady, and most of all, is theirs.

The Crab Man spoke to my daughter of many things that day when she visited him, and coincidentally or not, his predictions mirrored her aspirations.  The crabs or the tiles indicated to him that she would complete a “work” and then embark on another that would take her around the globe, and that she would also return to Cameroon (something she already has in the works).  Did the crabs have special powers?  I am not all that familiar with crabs, so I can’t say.  But what about the Crab Man?  Was he prescient?  A con artist?  Or did he just see how comfortable my daughter was in his village?

He spoke his own local dialect and had another villager translating his words into French.   Nina was fluent enough to be able to then translate the translator’s words for the other students.  Did the Crab Man take note of this, of how carefully she tried to convey the words both ways?  Did he notice how she spoke with respect and listened with concentration?  Did he see the shadows and the intelligence in her eyes when she was playing with the little children and the baby goats that ran around the hut?  I am betting that he did, that he was a master of reading not just crabs and tiles, but trajectory.  I suspect that the Crab Man wasn’t predicting so much as he was just stating the obvious, at least what would be obvious to those who know to look at what IS in order to catch a glimpse of what will be.

What would change, do you suppose, if you were to shift your focus from plans to trajectory?

– – – – – – – – – – –

Postscript: I wrote this blog post last summer, but I decided to submit it to several magazines.  Most publications won’t consider work that has already been made public, so I had to wait until it was rejected (over and over, ouch) before I could post it here.  But the delay has not been without benefit.

The story continues: I just got word from my daughter that she has been accepted for a summer internship with—  you guessed it— the State Department in Cameroon.  I am thinking about making a trip to see the Crab Man myself.

Reading The Iliad

Things haven’t changed all that much in the last, oh, three thousand years.

My teen-aged son Thomas and I are reading Homer’s Iliad.  I have read this story something like half a dozen times, although this version, translated by Robert Fagles, is new to me.  After some initial trepidation about all of the unfamiliar names (and everyone has at least two), Thomas has settled into the language and the rhythm of the verse and seems to be enjoying it.

It is said that the classics stand the test of time because they speak to the universal human condition.   While The Iliad has much to say about friendship, leadership, heroism and most especially death, I believe that its long-lived appeal may be due to the fact that Homer, or the many bards whom we collectively call Homer, nailed it when it comes to guys.

Have I just spent too much time waiting around the hockey rink and the soccer field?  I have to say that we see a lot of similarities between these ancient dudes and the adolescent boys who fill the locker room with a miasma of testosterone so thick you could cut it with a knife—  if you weren’t paralyzed first by the smell.

In the story, every battle begins with a gathering of forces where the leader/coach exhorts his men to perform well, covering all the bases by inspiring them to greatness with words of praise and glory while simultaneously threatening them with eternal shame if they exhibit any weakness or doubt.  Then there is the ceremonious donning of armor, with the accompanying fussing over gear.  Substitute shin guards and shoulder pads for greaves and breastplates and you are good to go.

After that comes the trash talk across the lines.  It is not enough to kill your enemy.  You must belittle him first, calling him a “dog-face,” and explaining to him that it is his day to die and that you are going to help him meet his fate.  Every way that it is possible to die by blade is described with all of the gory details: the bronzed spears stabbing above, between and through nipples, eyes popping  out of sockets, mushy brain-matter spilling when skulls are crushed, entrails snaking out of gashed abdomens.  Homer could have written the book on how to use computer-enhanced blood splatters to titillate an audience.

Then there are the spoils of war, the prettiest girls going to the victors, along with treasure and tripods.

“What is it with all of these tripods?”  I said one day.

“They’re for the ritual burning of bones and hides as an offering to the gods,” my son explained.   “Mom, it’s grilling.”

Of course.

There is even a hilarious episode in which Hera tries to distract Zeus from meddling in the war by seducing him.  As she approaches him in her diaphanous gown, with her love charm from Aphrodite hidden between her breasts, Zeus proceeds to tell her just how alluring she is— by comparing her to all of his previous lovers— showing that guys who over-estimate the effects of their smooth talk have been at it for millenia.

It is possible to think that by comparing the heroes’ aristeiae (passages of verse that sing of the hero’s most stellar moments in battle) with an ESPN sports highlights reel, we are making light of this great work of literature…. but we are not.  We are making it ours.  We are looking into the souls of Achilles and Hector and Patroclus and are seeing the possibility that we are looking into our own.  While my son may be a little young to truly understand the yearning for immortality that drives and condemns the heroes of The Iliad, he can, at the least, relate to them as not just characters, but men.  I am satisfied with that much literary analysis.

Independence Day

After two weeks away working for his great-uncle, Thomas will be back for only a weekend before heading out for another week.  I will have to resist following him around the house, nudging and nosing like the dog, who can still get away with that sort of thing.  I will stay up late enough to tuck him in and find a reason to lurk, picking up wads of used athletic tape from under his bedtable, and he will indulge me for a little while and ask me what I did while he was gone.  His chin, all angles now with a few well-tended whiskers, still fits into my cupped hand, but I mustn’t be too greedy.

I am not the only guilty one.  This happens when my daughter comes home, too: she’ll be washing her face in the bathroom, and I will wander in to chat, and then Thomas will come in ostensibly to clip his toenails, and the dog follows to see if she can get at the clippings or steal a sock, and my husband, not wanting to be left out, will poke his head in.  And at some point, Nina notices.  She looks up at us in the mirror and smiles that slow, knowing smile of hers– we’re busted– and we all act surprised and innocent and clear out because we were really just about to go anyway.