Charles de Gaulle airport is a nightmare of bad signage and infinite corridors…but there are some of the best modernist vistas throughout.
In Seattle last month, I sat next to a young woman who was taking her first business trip away from her two kids.
She had that combined haunted/giddy look that only the newly liberated/terrified young parent can have: such relief from the moment-by-moment of the grind, exhilaration of being among adults, taken seriously, no one calling her name every five minutes.
And yet, and yet…
A near-constant glance at the cell phone, prepared at any moment to be called back. A visceral, bodily missing her children. Looking around every few moment because she is sure she has forgotten something. What doesn’t she have with her? Ah, yes, the little hand to hold to cross the street. Like missing a shoe.
It turns out that her husband travels frequently, about 60%, and has been left at home with the kids for this rare trip from NY to Seattle where she is working as a consultant.
So, of course, he doesn’t have a clue about where anything is, what the kids are supposed to do tomorrow, how to get everything done. He has been left in charge of someone else’s job!…And she is both worried and full of righteous indignation–will they all survive? and “So, get a taste of my life, Buster!”
I haven’t actually been her–but I have been her husband.
I called my husband the first time he took a business trip to Singapore (after he started working as a consultant again) and asked for a more granular explanation of the two-page list of home tasks he had given me.
Thirty minutes of roaming cell phone charges and explanation. Two different itineraries for Monday. Cash and carpools for Tuesday. Who-will-eat-what-for-packed-lunch Wednesday.
And the very next phone call I made was to an agency to get someone to do the work.
That’s what I do. I manage other people to get things done. No one, I don’t care who, could possibly do the list that he had given me over his cell phone from Schiphol airport.
Interesting, though, that the question that my temporary Seattle acquaintance had for me on our short bus ride wasn’t “how do you get it all done?” but “how do help the kids cope with your absences?”
I’ve thought a lot about this by now. Some of the answers I would have given a few years ago seem too trite now to even list, although they helped. For a while I brought presents home from each trip, but that ended up with me stressing out at airport gift shops, the kids rushing me at the door asking for loot, a roomful of garbage, and me feeling like I was vending machine.
Routines and rituals helped a fair amount–a real cuddle with mom in bed while I recovered from my jetlag, a story on the couch after I cleaned myself off from the airplane. But that was only about clearing the runway for re-entry, not about the time away itself.
I would have to say that the thing that has been the most important has been to discuss with the kids the content and meaning of the work.
Not the stuff you’ll get punished for if you don’t do it. Not the homework your teacher will mark as missing, or the meetings your boss insists that you attend. Because, in truth, it has been better than a decade since I have had anyone dictate to me what I really need to get done on a daily basis, or even on a monthly basis. An occasional request for a this or a that, but the weeks I spend on the road are about my aspirations for the world, not about a dictator’s.
What I hadn’t been conveying, overall, in those first four years of 50% international travel, of the jetlag and the 60-hour work weeks while home, was that I do most of the stuff that I do so I can really be on top of things, so I can really make a difference, so I can really hold my head high when I’m putting my pumps on in the morning.
What helped the most was to stop complaining about my work, and to start talking about the meaning of it.
Why it mattered that I was fundraising for education or for health. What the impact of my work was on other people. Why I felt proud about certain types of things, or insecure about others. How I relied on other people and they relied on me.
In my last year of college I made this pact with my friends–we would no longer talk to each other about the load of work we had in front of us, since the story was always the same whether we majored in clarinet or chemistry. Instead, when we met each other on the street and asked each other “how’s it going?” we would always talk about the content of the work that we were doing. The challenge of mastering a new part in a modern concerto; the methodology of writing up an unexpected lab result.
I majored in neither music nor science, and frequently, I didn’t understand the real content of what my friends would say. But I could always understand the look of perplexity on their faces as they puzzled out, in conversation, the intricacies of what they needed to master, and the pleasure of the becoming–in whatever the small way–that master that they had hopes to become.
In the process of doing the same thing in the family, there has been an interesting transition, little by little, with the kids. Today coming home from school, my ten-year-old was really excited by “the new math we learned at school,” which turned out to be long division by some Swiss name. I got a detailed and utterly confusing story about how you make kind of a house for two numbers, the one you are dividing into and the one you are dividing by, one vertical, the other horizontal, the vertical line shorter than the horizontal and the columns of tens and hundreds and multiplying by the smaller number…and when we got into the apartment he ran for a piece of paper, a pencil and ruler to show me on paper. Twenty minutes spent on how four goes into 160, and then how it goes into 116. Understanding. New math. Cool.
That, there is the joy of work. Something so hard that you are trying to master and you don’t yet know the whole of it. And while it doesn’t replace the needs of being in the same rooms at the same times, the need to hold and touch and kiss each other, it does explain, a bit, why each of us goes out of the house every day, leaves the others behind, and does the very best we can in the paths we have in front of us.
Today Malcolm and I decided that we would have a “family day”. That is, a day devoted to the fun and fabulousness of being a Lucard.
Good idea! I have started traveling again for work–right now only 12 days a month, which is 30 percent. On a 31 day month.
Unless you’re counting work days. In which case it is 50%.
But who counts weekends? Let’s say it is 30 %. And if I’m gone one or two weekends, it is just a rounding error, right? Sounds more reasonable anyway.
So, the Sunday for the family. Last night, Uly complained that I had spent too much time sleeping, recovering from jetlag and hadn’t read them the end of the novel we’ve been working on. So, I took the complaint to heart.
The boys got up as usual long before they usually do on the weekdays so they can play “Spore”, the computer game obsession of the month. When we woke and Malcolm told them that I was ready to read, Uly said “but it is just now my turn on Spore!”
Well, I know my place in life. Besides, Malcolm and I know how to entertain ourselves on a Sunday morning when the boys are otherwise occupied. Why did we get a VCR in the first place 10 years ago and teach our 2 year old to operate it on Saturday mornings before he could even talk? Indeed.
But even adult entertainment ends, so eventually we re-emerged and suggested that mama was ready to read again… and indeed they were ready to hear the steampunk fiction book Leviathan. Malcolm, meanwhile made pancakes.
Serious life points at about 10:30 when, with Uly and Gideon and I snuggled under our down comforter in our giant bed, the window open and bringing in November air and sunshine, hot tea by our sides delivered by Malcolm, the pentultimate chapter almost finished, Uly declared “I am so contented. This is like hitting the life Loto.”
From there, life became frenzied. Pancakes, then all off onto our bicycles (is there air in their tires? no? where is the pump?), and through the Jardin along the lake (memorial service for servicemen; European soldiers in their European costumes marching to their European rhythms), up the hill to the swimming pool. Meet the kids’ friend. Three boys, one man, one woman to the municipal pool. 500 meters for Andrea, a thousand jumps off the board for the boys, then as much roughhousing as we all could handle until we were chlorinated to our very cores.
Bike back down the hill, through the traffic, all the soldiers gone from the park.
Lock up bikes.
Togs in the dryer.
Malcolm to the taxes. For 2007. Don’t ask, only know that Americans abroad have to file taxes wherever they live. 46 pages of taxes. Just to prove you don’t owe taxes.
Andrea to the household.
Fold the cardboard wine boxes that reach to the ceiling. Really. We drink wine here in Europe. Uncover the fish tank that has been buried by the wine boxes. Really. Not bad. One of the two guppies has survived. Two inches of water left. Uly to clean out goldfish bowl, and figure out a way for guppies to survive.
Gideon to clean out the guinea pig cage. Atlantia, our guinea pig, has become a real household mascot. Gideon holds her to the phone when I call. She has us all trained–when we walk by their room where she lives, she squeals until we bring her fresh fruit and veg. We all talk to her. (I found myself tonight saying “be quiet now, guinea pig” as I left their room; Malcolm made fun of me.) Except the cage cleaning is rarely supervised by adults. So when the cage came to the bathroom for cleaning, the matter needed to be handled by…maybe those guys who run “America’s dirtiest jobs” or is the “the world’s dirtiest jobs”? I dunno. I occasionally catch some portion while channel surfing in hotel rooms.
Ah, hotel rooms. Where someone else picks up the hairs in the bathroom, folds your towels, changes the sheets. And you don’t even have to say “thank you”, just leave five bucks on the dresser when you leave.
Did I say that? Get nostalgic for the Marriott?
No, not I.
Not while I am figuring out methods for cleaning the guinea pig cage that don’t involve flames or caustic chemicals. I asked Gideon what tools he needed to clean out the cage: “Water, soap, an axe, a fire extinguisher, rubber gloves, towels, a flame thrower and two pieces of gum”. He wasn’t far off.
Gideon, to be utterly fair, didn’t complain too much.
Although he also kind of failed to concentrate. So, when I came in after about 30 minutes I found him and his brother washing the guinea pig, or forcing her to swim in the lukewarm water of the sink, while the cage sat on its disgusting side in the bathtub.
My bathtub. The one where I soak my tired bones each evening. The one that I have to clean out myself.
So, guinea pig rescued, we tried again, this time I stayed in the bathroom and cleaned out the medicine cabinet (how do Malcolm’s whiskers get INSIDE the cabinet? Does he trim his beard looking outwards?) while supervising the grand cleanout.
I asked Gideon which was worse, matching black socks (which he had previously identified as “child’s hell”) or cleaning a guinea pig cage. His answer was “well, the guinea pig cage is at least important”. Good answer.
He also said “Guinea pig pee, plus sawdust equals cement. We could use this as a green building material in the future.” I had to agree.
Fill cage with water, let sit. Dump in toilet. Use butter knife. Use old toothbrushes. Use green scrubbies. Throw them all away. Confront still more cement. Gideon suggested something acidic. We went for the vinegar. Cleaning strength. Nope. Double cleaning strength. Nope. Full strength. Ah, it began to work. Vinegar, knife, brush, showerhead at full strength and heat, flush and repeat.
Meanwhile, guinea pig is in a towel, shivering in the bedroom. Cuddle guinea pig. Placate with carrots. Back to cage. Clean up from where guinea pig has been shivering.
Finally, done. Pat Gideon on the head for a job well done (if heinously delayed).
And now Uly who has, as instructed, come up with a way to save the guppy. Take the guppy out of the two inches of water in the big tank, clean out the big tank (don’t think too much about what the other guppy has become in the world beneath the wine boxes) but save the rocks in the bottom. That required two of us to dump the water in the toilet (the sewers of Geneva are working tonight!), and a colander.
Meanwhile, a small voice comes to us “sorry to tell you, Mom, but the washing machine is overflowing”. “The what?” Uly makes whirling motions to indicate our front loading machine. Our NEW frontloading machine.
Malcolm still on our 46 pages of two year overdue taxes. I go to investigate. Test hoses. Test drainage. Give up and simply mop up water with the swimming towels.
I remember the grocery order. If I want to get it delivered tomorrow so that Malcolm doesn’t have to deal alone with all the groceries, which procedure is usually duly reported to me by the kids, complete with the blue language of the moment, I’d better move it. Online to the grocery store online–gluten free things and heavy things and easy things for when I am in London on Wednesday and Thursday to make for lunch and dinner.
Oh, dinner! Shoot. Off to the kitchen for roast chicken and potatoes, and make the rice pudding for the kids to eat for breakfast all week. And there’s no gluten-free bread in the house for lunches. So I ask Gideon who seems to have recovered from the guinea pig debacle if he would like to make bread. Well, yes, maybe, but actually he’s in the middle of science experiments, all of which involve baking soda and vinegar. That’s cute. What a clever child. My motherly prideful heart goes pitapat. How about using the vinegar that I have now in the bathroom, waiting to disinfect the guinea pig and fish contaminated tub. Nope. He’s already on it and using the balsamic vinegar.
Argh! I yell. “If you can’t do anything useful, get out of the kitchen!”
He scampers out like a wet guinea pig. Nice parenting there, Lucard.
But, fortunately, my kids don’t take me very seriously. Five minutes later, he’s back with a new experiment. This one with oil and water and baking soda that shows the relative weights of the three substances, all lined up nicely in the test tube, which is actually a former vanilla-bean tube.
File the grocery order.
Remember the thing I forgot, and file again. Send a text to a friend. “Help! I’m drowning!” He laughs. He lives alone.
Uly begins homework. He has to make a car that will run along a track with some source of energy. It has to be of a plastic bottle and some energy source. The unit of inquiry is on energy–what about vinegar and baking soda? Good idea! I hide the balsamic.
Gideon out in the living room, bread dough still on his hands. Bread dough on the sofa. But we will have gluten free bread for sandwiches tomorrow, when Uly goes to his basketball match.
Uly begins trumpet practice. Mary had a little lamb in the 2 meter square kitchen. Gideon hands full of bread dough. “Not bad for a broken trumpet”, he says. “Broken? How can that be? We just rented it!” He shows me a valve that gets stuck. Yep. Broken. How on earth will we get that fixed? Well, he’d better learn to be good with his embouchure. (I had to look that up on Wikipedia to spell it right.)
More texts to a friend. Malcolm swearing from the living room. But he has found us another $2500 in deductions. Break out the champagne.
Chicken and potatoes out of the oven. Gorgeous, except there are no vegetables. Can potato be a vegetable? Can ketchup? Quickly top and tail the greenbeans, set up steamer, call the boys to set the table. “Mom, I’m supposed to have a fountain pen for school, remember?” Yep, I remember. Was sure I bought it, but between grocery and classroom, it has been lost. Back online for the grocery order. Is it too late? Nope, can still refile, although the order is now topping our tax bill. Well, there’s lots of wine in the delivery (and I try not to think of the boxes). Oh, and put the freezer bags out for the delivery man. We have 50 francs worth, at least at five francs a bag. We’ll leave them in the hallway, although our Portuguese super will scowl at us, maybe even leave us a nasty note when he cleans the floors tomorrow.
Pick up fish in soup bowl sitting on living room floor. Remove fish tank from bathtub. Check to be sure guinea pig doesn’t have hypothermia. Check that washing machine isn’t overrunning again. Put track suits in the dryer so kids have something non-smelly to wear for the basketball match tomorrow. Put chocolate bar in briefcase so they have a treat at the end of the match (not eaten by lunchtime). How will I make it to the match on the other side of town in the dark and rain and on my bike at 4 p.m.? Think of that tomorrow. Beans are done.
The laundry is on the bed ready to be put away. I think I will sleep beneath it tonight. It will remind me of the thick comforters at the Marriott. I leave for London on Wednesday. Thank God.
And I will get homesick and can’t wait to get back to do it all again.
Compassion and parenthood
Back home recently I visited with a friend whose son comitted suicide after return from Iraq, not long before deployment to Afghanistan. We talked about many things—about writing, moving away from Colorado Springs, getting older, parents, siblings—but of course our conversation was dominated by her love for her son, her regret, her sorrow, her ever-blossoming understanding of what it would be like for the rest of her life to be the mother of a child who was no longer there.
I asked her what she told people when they asked her about how many kids she had: “I say ‘I am the mother of four children, but one of them died.’”
A true, and beautiful, and sad statement.
What else did she know now I asked her. What else had changed?
“I’m so much more patient now. Even of strangers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know now that everyone you’re encountering is going through some of their own shit. I mean, I knew that before, of course we all do, but now when I get on an airplane I look around me and think ‘How many of these people are on the plane because they are going to the sickbed of a loved one? How many are going to a funeral of their brother their mother their child?’ You are so much more willing to understand that the world isn’t about you.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that. To nod, to sip my wine, to bless her for her honesty, to hope that tragedy won’t knock on her door again. To wonder at the miracle of motherhood.
I am a new Kindle reader, a not-early-yet-not-yet-late adopter, like I was with my Powerbook when it was grey and clunky and slowslowslow as a battleship and hardly something you would trade your PC for.Those were the days when laptops were so new that when I took mine from my Queens apartment to the neighborhood Wendy’s to write (this was also before Starbucks had taken hold in the East Coast) a middle aged couple come up to me and ask me what the machine was.Literally, what it was, what it did.I wonder if they remember that with the kind of “isn’t life amazing” grin that my father had the first time he used an ATM.
Now that I’m carrying the Kindle around with me everywhere, people are stopping at me at the beach in Geneva where I live, or leaning over in the airplane (such intimate spaces, they’re reading my books) or interrupting me while I read at lunch to ask about it.Like someone who has imported an unusual breed of dog I feel obligated to say a thing or two about what it is and why I like it.
And I really really like it.
The first week I got the Kindle was the week after the New Yorker published Nicholson Baker’s essay excoriating the machine.Since many of my literate friends subscribe to the New Yorker, many of my friends quoted his article.(I haven’t subscribed to the New Yorker since I realized I had 40 weeks of unread New Yorkers blocking my way to the bathtub, each one representing another week of not really being literate.I couldn’t stand the accumulated whispers from the pages, so I figured that I had to either stop bathing or cancel my subscription.Since the bath is where I do most of my reading, I couldn’t not bathe AND read the New Yorker.Logical impossibility.So the New Yorker went.)
In order to read Baker’s article, therefore, I waited until a friend here in Geneva could bring me a copy.She also brought me a commentary in a French magazine “Livres” or “Books”, and another in a Spanish magazine with the same subject matter, I don’t recall the title (my colleague reclaimed the magazines off my desk yesterday while I was on the phone discussing budget reconciliations).I can read both French and Spanish but it takes an effort and I am lazy, so I just glanced at them and saw all kinds of verb negation.They don’t like the Kindle either.So rather than reading them, I let them sit there to remind me that, despite my vast, unquenchable thirst for books, I will never really be literate.
Besides, whatever such writers may say, I’m really enjoying my Kindle.In fact, I’ve fallen in love with it.Which made me wonder why I could both love it and Nicholson Baker so much, yet we could so fundamentally disagree.
Here’s my thesis:it is about work.My job.My daily life. And its contrast with Baker’s job.
Baker has a job.He is a writer.All these commentaries have been written by writers.Professionals.On the one hand, thank goodness.If I want a commentary written by your uncle Fred, the one who talks at cocktail parties about how he is going to write a book someday, I can go on the Amazon website.He, or his facsimile, is all over the Amazon website, and I rely on him or his dopplegangers to tell me whether I want to buy things.But that is different than what I want to think about something.For that, good writers are key.Your uncle Fred is the reason I pay for magazines even if not the New Yorker—someone smarter than me has chosen the writers so I don’t have to suffer through amateurish prose.Like my own.
On the other hand, writers—although I love them and need them almost as much as farmers–are not real people with real jobs that require them to read powerpoints all day and fight human resources and IT and schlep all their gear on the bus to get to work 48 weeks out of the year, then come home and schlep the groceries and the children’s gear and be out of their houses for 14 hours a day.
Of course, that’s why writers aren’t like the rest of us.Thank goodness, or we would never have any reason to turn a page of anything more nuanced than a blender manual.But think about it.Writers like Nicholson Baker, assuming he has an office where he writes, and that office is full of books—Nicholson Baker and most writers I know are never far from their libraries.They work where they store their books.Their work directly involves reading.
My work involves reading too.Vast amounts of it.I have a stack of paper 4 inches high on the right-hand side of my desk, all of which involves reading.Alas, in that pile is a 24 page description of a project awaiting my commentary—the 24 pages is the required response by the project office.An elaborate form, in fact.Needs my John Hancock.There is a pdf of a 72 page contract of a partnership agreement from which I need to glean and disseminate the relevant clauses to satisfy senior colleagues that our data is secure.On my computer, are more documents to be read and printed—357 emails to be exact, at least 20 of them that contain forms of more than 6 pages to be digested (if I don’t read them and they contain information I need, I’m screwed) and probably 12 Powerpoints that people now write to avoid having to write or read so much text.
To the left of my chair a real life book (a hardback, with shiny new dust jacket!) holds a place of honor—“Money Well Spent,” by Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation.It discusses methods to analyze organizational impact in nonprofits and how to make funding decisions based on that impact.I have been putting off reading it because it requires the kind of close study that, say, a new paper on calcium distribution in mollusk shell formation might require for a marine biologist.I’m looking forward to the intense concentration that such a book requires, once I’ve read the contracts, emails and Powerpoints.And written my own.I think I’m due to write 4 or 5 Powerpoints this week. But the book sits on my desk as a promise of sustained attention, as a grappling with well-reasoned ideas, and also, honestly, as a symbol to people who walk in:you are in the office of an up-to-date professional who reads real BOOKS.
But, of course, none of these things are actually reading.Not what Nicholson Baker considers real reading, nor what those of us in the cult of readers—the many millions of us who cannot imagine being without a book, or several, to transport us somewhere else—consider reading.Most of us, even if we’re reading the New Yorker daily, don’t consider magazines real reading either.That’s just ocular nerve information absorption.Real reading requires books, and thus it is books we crave.Lots of books, from a vast variety of genres.Each with its own subculture and expectation of the experience.Mystery readers expect to find order.Western readers expect to find testosterone-laden justice.Contemporary fiction readers expect to feel enlightened by some new subject, shadenfreude for the terrible life we’re not living. Romance readers expect to feel warm, maybe even hot when they are done reading.There’s more we get from , of course.Enlightenment, meditation.Information carefully researched about a subject—banana growing in the 19th century—but imagining, and the feelings that go with that imagining—that’s what I need most.
My subcult is loosely defined by contemporary literary fiction, dipping occasionally into literary nonfiction, sci fi, mystery, historical fiction, and self help.The common thread is that it has to be well written (even the self help, although there’s more license for ick there—it is a placebo for real self work) and it has to feed my hunger of the moment.For order—the mysteries of Kate Atkinson.For sci-fi expansion—China Mieville.For other lives—well, Nicholson Baker will do very nicely.
My pile of yet-to-be-read books lets me to feel wealthy and secure, even when patently not either.Few things make me feel poorer or more insecure than having nothing to read.Like having nothing to wear on my brain.
Unfortunately, for my whole working life (25 years now), I have gone into the office, found myself surrounded by professional manuals and documents during the work hours, occasionally have found myself with a few minutes of time at lunch when I could read, say, a few paragraphs of a sci fi novel over lunch, only to find that I packed “Middlemarch”.When you want to read Jane Austen and the zombies, plain old Jane Austen just won’t do.I’ve often looked in my briefcase and found that I’ve chosen a book for reasons that have nothing to do with my real reading desires: the Millenium Trilogy is too thick to fit in my briefcase; I couldn’t find the novel on nuclear physics, “The Sun and the Moon Corrupted”, as I was rushing out the door; I am embarrassed to read “Think and Grow Rich” in public; only a fanatic would take Mark Bittman’s cookbook tomes on the bus).Every day there is a small repetition of that basic disappointment—I have nothing to read. I am thirsty for literature and have to ignore that thirst, instead staying at my desk and wading through its contents.
It is certain that, since I’ve gotten the Kindle, I have read more than before, as I squeeze what I really want to read into the small crevices of my life.
So why is Baker so worried?Well, there’s the loss of paper information, which is worrying—someone controls those servers, and someone can determine what you’re reading.No need for Farenheit 457—just get the Chinese censors over here.There’s the technology, which is far from perfect.There’s the choice of books, which is annoying, but is changing daily.
What seems to worry Baker the most, though, is the loss of the book as an object of beauty.As someone who gets to handle his books on a daily basis, who toils away in the psychic space of a blank page, or screen, who spends months on a book that we can read in a matter of hours (Baker’s books are all tremendously slim) is that through the Kindle–mine now loaded with about 35 books of multiple genres—the book as object is clearly critical.
After all, if each book looks the same on a screen, aren’t all books interchangeable?Will books become a commodity when they lose their corporeal form, their beauty?
Alas, for someone like me—a working mother in the middle class—most books already long ago lost their beauty as objects.Until recently, when I moved to a non-English-speaking country, I bought almost all my books second hand.That means that when I read Baker’s “Fermata” (a story of a young man who can stop time, and uses this great power to undress the women in his office—a brilliant look at the erotic and our imaginations) it was most likely in a coffee-stained paperback version, filled with the detritus of all unputdownable books–dandruff, salad dressing, the insect instinctively squashed when it flew between the pages.I don’t remember.Not even the cover.What I remember is being transported back to the days when I was a secretary, and the outrageousness of Baker’s ambition, and the way he slowed down time and allowed the mildly shocking to take place in a syrup of languor, and the timbre of his obnoxious narrator whose voice I can still replay if I sit quietly enough.
It was Baker’s words that kept me trapped in the fictional dream.The vessel is entirely lost to me.Likely, had I read it in a pdf format, in a printout in the pile of my desk, his skill would have transported me just the same.
Only… maybe not.The interesting thing about the Kindle, and maybe other book readers as well (this is not a product ad and I haven’t tried more than one book reader) is that is enough like a book that my brain simply seems to cue “book” when I open the cover and turn it on.Just like when I lie down on the bed with my children, I am signaling “story time” and they come out of their bunkbeds and are finally quiet for the first time all day and lie down looking at the pages like they always have although—now we’ve graduated to chapter books—there are no longer pictures to see.Maybe it is the Kindle’s grey pages (most of my books’ pages are actually slightly yellow), or the size of it, or the heft.Probably it has to do with the typesize I’ve chosen that allows me to read enough lines across and down a page to feel like a book.It definitely has to do with how you hold it—not a phone, not a computer.Whatever the mechanism, I’m able to induce the reader’s dreamstate with it.
What the book reader surpasses in normal books is the simple choice of which dream I follow.I genuinely wish that Roberto Bolano’s “2666” were on the Kindle.I bought it in hardback, but even in paperback I would have been unwilling to drag all 800 pages of it to the beach yesterday—8 blocks on foot with the swimgear of a family of four, toys and the picnic supper—although I knew I would have the longest interlude of reading all week while there.I was too tired.I had already hauled my laptop to work, my groceries from the market with the laptop and briefcase on my back.What I wanted to accompany me to the lake was the complex pattern that Bolano has begun to weave for me.But I couldn’t.I physically couldn’t face another two pounds of weight.So I took “The Sun and the Moon Corrupted” instead, which wasn’t a bad choice after all.But still—when can I read Bolano? In the bathtub, with it propped up on one knee, I guess. When I am home. I won’t be taking it on the 25 hours of airplane flights I have these next ten days to and from Singapore, and Jakarta—it is just too hard to run full speed through Charles de Gaulle airport with all that luggage (I always have to run through Charles de Gaulle airport, regardless of how well I schedule my flights).
Oh, I don’t want to take my dictionary too, now that I have rediscovered the delight of really looking things up in the dictionary when you want the nuance of the word. As I said before—I am lazy, and getting out of the bath to lookup a word is not a possibility. Nor is hauling a dictionary. Nor turning on my computer.But with the Kindle, I move the (admittedly awkward) mouse to the word, let it sit, and Voila! a brief definition.This week I looked up “avatar” (I only knew the word in its computer sense, not its Hindu origins), “concupiscence” (never really knew what it meant, only a general sense of licentiousness), and “middlebrow” (just because it popped to mind and I wanted to know what Oxford New English dictionary said).I confess to rarely looking up words when I should.Maybe I can resubscribe to the New Yorker now.
If books become a commodity—as interchangeable as oranges, or steel, or grains of wheat–it will be because we have failed our authors, we have stopped reading well, we have stopped talking about books, we have stopped editing them with care.Not because we read them with love and a new tool.
Never mind the Kindle’s interface (it works fine), the grey pages (I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out), the way of changing pages (yes, BUT you can do it with the pad of your thumb while holding it, never moving a muscle, perfect for having two kids on your lap talking to one another about computer games while occupying the valuable real estate of mama’s lap), the proprietary software of Amazon (troublesome in some distant future, although Baker has it right), the less-than-perfect design (my ugly grey Powerbook has evolved to my husband’s sleek MacBook, and when Apple gets their reader out… ah…) the book reader, in this case the Kindle, lets me read.
It lets me read in the tiny tesseracts of time that occasionally unfold in front of me. It lets me choose what to read in a life where so often what to read is required by some faceless other: (who is the head of the efficiency transition reporting team who insists I approve this? Doesn’t matter.Must needs.)It lets me fill my life, just a little bit more, with the heroin of literature.It gives my brain something to wear.It helps slake my thirst.And that’s 90% of what I need, really need, from my books.The other 10% is a question for another day.
I was trying to reach someone in southern California yesterday afternoon, and I forgot the +1 country code for the US. Woke up some poor Chinese-speaking grandpa in Singapore. Oops. Sorry.
Vacation just ain’t what it used to be.
For the past five years, I have not had a vacation that I haven’t checked my email, made phone calls, or finished a project. That vacation five years ago was notable because I was between two jobs, one where I was on a ten-month contract, and the new one to begin after the boys and I took a six-week tour of the US in our 1963 camper trailer we bought on eBay. Without electricity, running water, and with only one cell phone between the two adults on board, there wasn’t a lot of contacting to be made.
It isn’t that I haven’t tried to have vacations. I have. It is just that, somehow, every deadline that I had spread into the vacation. And while preparing for the vacation, with two or three weeks of unspoken-for time spreading out in front of me—spoken for, but for less time-critical issues, like my family, or my own rest—it never seemed like a problem to promise to check the email or deliver on some deadline or another.
There were the design specs for the brochure we had to deliver for a conference that I downloaded over the dialup modem in the ancient villa in Italy—and that I discussed for several expensive hours with the designers in New York.
There was the contract with Saudi Arabia, or its tenth iteration, that had to be to the lawyers in Riyadh mere days after I was to return from vacation. That required even more expensive telephone calls with the attorneys in London discussing British Trust law, its origins, its application in modern British law and that further application to Swiss law. And yes, I really did need to know all of that.
And so on. Mostly I remember these conversations by the physical comfort, or lack thereof. Looking over olive fields, but balancing paper on an ancient wall, hoping to get both cell phone access and a flat place to look at designs. On the foldout sofa of my mother-in-law’s guest bedroom, the only room in the house, it seemed, where you could shut a door.
This last vacation, however, I was more judicious in my promising before the vacation. And, I have more help than I have in several years. With a request to my colleague to check all my emails and to only contact me via SMS when I had something urgent, I managed to keep the messages and conversations down to only six in the three week vacation. Pretty darn good.
I really got up late and went to bed late.
I really spent some time with my kids.
And I almost went nuts. After about a full week of this, I was visiting with a sociologist friend of mine and I said “I think I’m going crazy. I want to go shopping. Or sleep with someone. Or eat too much. Or do something really bad.”
“I can help you with a few of those,” she said, “but not the sleeping-with part.” Then she said, “The problem you have is anomie.”
College sociology was 25 years ago, so I made a note to look up “anomie” again, after I finished being analyzed. Emile Durkheim. A lack of social norms, or too rigid social norms. Leading, to the social causes of suicide.
She kept on: “You are used to having everything scheduled for you. You have to be here and there, you are responsible for this and that. Now you’re responsible for nothing, and have all this time on your hands. Anomie.”
She was dead right.
It took about two full weeks for me to calm down my jitters enough to just sit a little bit, not get dressed up every day, and stop shopping or drinking or fantasizing about other people’s husbands. I did get there, but really two weeks, like a drug, like the worst of my biannual caffeine withdrawal fests, complete with headaches and bitchiness. The last week of the vacation we were in the country with no telephone or electricity, and finally I felt like I could relax.
Work, regardless of how much it can suck, and suck it really can, still is my major organizing principle. Deadlines, responsibility to people, evaluations—all of those are what make my life tick.
Now I’m back at work again, and today, Sunday, at the end of the day, I was really itchy again. We’re at the beach by the lake, and I’m really thinking about my next project, the menu plan for the week, and how I’m going to structure my time for the next few months to finish my writing projects, get the apartment cleaned out, and keep the family ticking.
My son wanted me to play in the shallow water at the lake. It was a little cold for me, I was already wet, it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. So I said no. And sat and fretted instead.
I need a few new social norms. Or drugs.
Saturday mornings, when I’m not on the road, are devoted to paper airplane flying. Well, two weeks ago it was devoted to baseball, but mostly to paper airplanes, the current passion of my 8-yr-old.
In most ways, the passion he has is for the folding. He has learned numerous fancy folds from YouTube, where teenager and adult men, still with the passion for folding, demonstrate it to the neophytes. More fancy folds from the airplane book he got at his birthday. And now, if he is to be believed, his own designs, some of which fly well, some of which do not, but all of which seem to require a PhD in at least getting those pesky folds to do something you thought paper never could.
Last Saturday we went down to the neighborhood square with two paper airplanes, one a light glider, the other a stunt plane. I was given the latter, and in the windy, tiled square (Eidelweiss hotel on one side, the six-foot wooden elephants of the Bollywood Cafe on the other, fountain down the middle, potable water fountain close-to), and instructions. First to fly it into the wind (a disaster, immediate crash, all passengers lost), then with the wind (more successful, emergency evacuation possible).
We played for the better part of an hour, my stunt plane getting yet worse after flying into the drinking fountain, and being rescued and dried off, but not improved. We went off to do some errands and drink a hot chocolate, then came back and played some more.
A little girl of about 5 was watching us. She went to her father who had her and her little brother, and spoke to him, pointing at the airplanes. We tried to get her interested in playing with us, but she was too shy.
To the grocery store for the weekend’s groceries. I am standing at the bread counter waiting for my son to bring the big cart–we’re buying more than we expected. Something hits me on the left side of my neck. I look to the side. Nothing. I look down. Nothing. I look down and to the side–the five-year-old has retrieved her airplane that hit me on the neck.
Ha! The minx has had her father fold her a plane, and now she has her own. She sent it my way–as a missle or not, unclear, but I smile a really big smile. More paper airplanes make the world a better place. She goes and confesses to her papa, he looks shocked and begins to apologize. I don’t want an apology–having a new paper airplane convert is enough.
This weekend I’m suggesting that we take the many many shopping bags of airplanes my son has made and give them away in the square. Will the square Swiss take them? Will they fly them with us? Will the air be full of recycled paper Harriers and Concordes? Or will we only have one five-year old to join us, hollering as her airplane, like all the others, inevitably finds its way to the water.
I just heard my young neighbor–mother to a one-year-old–come home at 12:40 a.m. Suddenly, I remembered our first date.
Not the first date when my husband and I went out to pizza on the Upper West Side of New York (and I paid, because he was broke, and a musician, and I had a good job, and we laid the foundations for the rest of our lives), and then went and watched pay-per-view Holyfield fight at his friend’s house because I was a recent karate black belt and I could understand what was happening even though the men could not, and then we drank pints at a bar that now doesn’t exist and went home to my apartment in Queens and slept together, but not… and stayed together for two days because he could not only cook fish with its head on and make it look appetizing but he could cook the leftovers and the leftover leftovers, proving himself a real cook (and laying the foundations for the rest of our lives), but…
…the first date we went on after our first child was born and we hadn’t been alone together for months and we had forgotten what we looked like without a kid on the shoulder and an agenda for when one or the other might–pee, talk on the phone, walk the dog, make dinner, sleep, pretend to care, stop caring, answer email, go to work–and we came home and paid the babysitter twice what she normally got because we were so giddy to have been adults and to have come home again to the gorgeous little package that was…
Anyone who doubts the glamour of today’s travel need go no further than the village hotel in very fancy Kent where I stayed on Friday.
After days of peripatetic travel around snowbound England, never two nights in the same hotel, I landed with relief at the hotel opposite the terribly fancy school where we were holding our board meeting. The hotel itself is not terribly fancy–kind of classic English, with the smell of Detoll and ancient patterned carpets. Nice enough, though.
Woke in the morning with two bites on my arm.
The next morning with two bites on my shoulder.
Wouldn’t have thought much about it, but a colleague show up COVERED in bites, which, because she is allergic to everything, had gotten infected and required a trip to medical care.
Ah, so that’s what bedbug bites look like.
A good friend posted numerous quotes about bedbugs:
I want to be a hospital bed bug”
- Ota Dokan
“A hundred bed bugs bold, and bad”
- Colfax Burgoyne Harman’s poem “The Landlord”
“a bedbug mother tips back her baby’s chin”
- Eliza Griswold
“crown and mitre me Bedbug the First”
- Derek Wolcott
“I bit the queen’s bottom!”
- John Foster’s bedbug brag
“[bedbugs] came like specks of cinnamon”
- Anne Sexton
“Swarming bed bugs, like black army tanks in the night”
- Ho Chi Minh’s prison poetry
“Umkhosi weencukithu neentakumba”
- J.R. Jolobe
“next door nobody/seems to live at present…or, bed-
- e.e. cummings
And another good friend posted a link about what to do if you bring them home. BRING THEM HOME? OMG! Turns out that’s how this little pest is regaining resurgence in London and New York–intrepid travelers go around the world, and bring them home in their luggage.
When I switched rooms, for the third night there, no bedbugs. Instead of getting bitten, a friend and I stayed until 3 am in the hotel bar drinking free wine given to us by the disgruntled chef who had just handed in his resignation.
The hangover in the morning almost made me forget the bites.