families

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At home in the states, each of my kids has his or her own orbit, complete with school, activities, friends, sports, and what not. Here, in contrast, it’s mostly the “what not,” which generally means exploring the country, something we do a lot of.  What Not has its advantages.  I mean, how often, when you’re seventeen, do you spend the day zigzagging the countryside from one castle to another?–most of them hundreds of years old?

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From kindly old gentlemen who function as self-appointed tour guides, you learn about the feudal system of goverment and how it functioned in Northern Spain. From younger siblings who want to scale the walls of every old fortress your family happens upon, you learn patience. From the undulating hills, everywhere flecked with medieval towns, you learn that life before the Twentieth Century really existed and that it was by turns violent and peaceful.

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Sans your American Life, what do you do?  You travel.  And you learn to see!

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We often call the baby of our family our “Caboose.” We ought to call him Mr. Stealth because he gets away with all kinds of stuff. And how is that? Well, number one, he’s on the cute side. Even back when I was pregnant with him, the tech who read my first ultrasound kept exclaiming over him. “He’s a beauty!” she said. “Really?” I wondered. I mean, how could you tell that just by looking at the baby parts swimming in and out of focus on her screen? “No, really!” she assured me. “He’s beautiful!”

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Number two, he was wanted. Badly. Especially by my oldest, who felt outnumbered and outchromosomed. When I returned home after my ultrasound and announced to my almost ten-year-old son that he had gotten his wish, that he was going to have a baby brother, he burst into motion, running around and around (and around) the house until he finally got so tired out he plopped down on the couch and sat there in a state of ecstatic bewilderment, contemplating his grand future as a Big Brother.

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As a result of One and Two, this boy gets away with things. Example. A few days ago, Mr. Caboose said to my older daughter, in a voice all honied up, “You could be the daughter of Aphrodite.” And when she pulled him over next to her for a cuddle and replied, “Ohhhh, that is the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me!” he added, “No, it’s because you always think you have to look perfect.” All at once she shoved him away and started laughing. We all did. He is the master of what I call Sugar Snark.

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And the rules? Take bed time, for instance. Since he has older siblings who stay up later, he finds ways to stall. “I just have to . . .” (fill in the blank).   Finish the chapter he’s reading.  Get a snack (because he can’t be sent to bed starving, right?).  Find his pajamas.  Hunt down a pair of socks to keep his feet from freezing during the night.  Attend to a bit of unfinished homework.  Download the next book in the Rick Riordan series.  Collect another hug.

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Last night, I agreed to lie down with him, something I’ve often done with my kids to get them into bed. A complicated practice, as many of you well know. And we’re lying there, he and I, and it’s late, and I’m eager to get things locked up so I can get to bed, and he turns to me and says in his Sweet Baby voice, “Sing to me.”  I feel myself smile.  He knows I’m not going to get up and leave when he says that.  So I start singing “Getting to Know You,” one of his favorites. Then he wants another, so I sing “My Favorite Things,” and he sings along. Finally, sensing that I’m about to be done, he calls my attention to the night sky, which we can both see through the sky light above us. “Oh!” he says. “Look how bright that star is!  Right there! Do you see it?”

Do I see it, he wants to know. This is how Mr. Caboose operates.  He maneuvers you right around to whatever happens to be the most urgent, even beautiful, thing on the radar. Then, once he gets you to stop and look, he’s home free. Because you can’t resist the urge to stay right there so you can say, “I do! I see!”  His modus operandi should be required reading for sales people everywhere.  If they get you to look at that star, you’re a goner.

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It’s no wonder he falls asleep every night with a big smile on his face. Rest well, Little Caboose.  You’ll need it.  Getting away with murder is full-time work.

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Do you have a pair of kids who run hot and cold?  Sometimes they’re famous friends and partners in crime (eating bowls of cereal together up on top of the kitchen soffits), sometimes they’re Montagues and Capulets, if you take my meaning.

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One day, years ago, when I was thinking about these two children and wondering how to grow their love, a small, knowing voice inside me said something like this:  “Pair them up doing what they do well together.”  Hard to translate.  If you have your own “knowing” (a handy thing to dial into, when you can manage to quiet your mind enough), you know that while the meaning of those nuggets of wisdom is perfectly clear to you, it can be hard to put into words that mean anything to anyone else.

Anyway.  I tried to do that.  Tried to create moments of “collision,” where these two could come together in seemingly random ways to be silly and have fun and therefore decide (hopefully) that fun just happened better with a sibling alonside you.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes it didn’t.  Their temperaments were so different.  One was often his own best company and thus got impatient when others wanted onto the merry-go-round, as it were.  The other did want company, especially his, and got her feelings bruised when he was in a mood.

There were tears, sure.  But when it all worked . . . wow.  They were meant to be friends, these two.  I knew it.   “They’ll be okay,” promised that voice inside me.

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Eventually, the younger one decided she really liked who she was and had no particular desire to apologize for it.  Fiercely persistent, she threw herself into her school work, her talents, her friendships, and, predictably, she reaped the rewards of her hard work.  One day, the older one said to me with a bewildered shake of the head, “How does she do it?”  And I smiled, because I knew what he meant.  When I pressed him to explain, he got more specific.  She did hard things, he said.  And she did them surprisingly well.

Now Mr. Older is gone, off in another corner of the world, working hard himself and thinking, occasionally (his letters suggest as much), about the younger sibling he has come to value deeply.  Turns out that one of the things each treasures most about the other is the very particular brand of silliness that defines so many of their moments together.

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They did the work of getting acquainted as friends.  They get to have the fun. And I get to be reminded, as I sift through these photos of our European adventures of last summer, that I ought to relax more, secure in the fact that my own knowing had it right all along:  they laugh hardest when they’re together.

(In these photos:  The Two, embracing their inner nerds in Nuremberg, Germany.)

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Last spring, I packed up a few colorful outfits, some not-so-sensible shoes, grabbed my laptop, got on a plane, and flew to Miami, where the Mom 2.0 Conference, at the Ritz Carlton Key Biscayne, was happening. I had decided I wanted to start blogging, and I knew nothing at all about how one went about it. I’d done plenty of writing. But blogging?

What I did know was that I wanted to reach out to moms of teens. That demographic, I felt, was underrepresented in the blogosphere, probably because we were all busy assembling meals for tweens and teens whose staggered schedules meant that the kitchen stayed open around the clock. Or we were helping with homework until 2 am. Or running this child or that one or all of them to/from ballet or voice lessons or track practice or a study group or a friend’s pool party or an orthodontic appointment or an MUN (Model United Nations) conference, etcetera, ad infinitum. Moms of kids in the (roughly) eleven to eighteen range, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I mean, how would any of us have time to blog, of all things?

Nevertheless, I checked in at the conference, and so began an interesting weekend, where mom bloggers of all stripes, authors, speakers, marketers, advertisers, media groups, and purveyors of very nice swag came together for morning plenary sessions, panel discussions, Q & A’s, lunches, a highly anticipated Twitter event, a reception at the Versace Mansion (skipped it, too tired), and on it went. Lots and lots to collide with, take notes on, process. Lots of networking to do, which is tricky if you have no business cards. Gals were handing them out like they were candy, and believe me, some serious thought had gone into the design of those cards.  As I was cardless, my line was, “I’m just starting out,” a confession which prompted one or two magnanimous smiles from women who were no doubt writing me off.

And there was plenty of “Reach out to me” talk going on.  One woman, a well-heeled rep for Macy’s, herself the mother of a teenage daughter, was telling me about her weekend in the Carribean with Rachel Roy and Martha Stewart. “Reach out to me,” she said coolly, passing me her card, and I was thinking to myself, “Mm, you probably don’t drive a Suburban that smells like the family’s last camping trip, do you?” But I smiled blithely, thanking her for her little compliment about my chevron-patterned knit skirt, which I’d picked up at a consignment store a few days earlier.  I doubted she frequented consignment stores.

On the one hand, I thought, what is all this?  On the other hand, I thought, why not?  Why not reach out, connect, build communities?  But I wasn’t sure my voice was sufficiently tuned, and that seemed to be the key feature of the blogs I resonated to–a strong sense of voice.  At the end of the weekend, I collected my things, got back on a plane, and flew back to Orange County, California, where the family waited to see how it had gone.  “It was cool,” I told them.  “Very interesting.”  Which it was.

And that was that.  Summer came.  The extended family met in Budapest to start a European river cruise, a gift from my parents.  My son was getting ready to embark on his own grand, two-year adventure, and I probably wrote five blog posts between May and September.

Then we moved. Out of the country. And I dusted off what I could recall from Mom 2.0 and started thinking again about blogging for real, about trying to connect moms of older kids, whose work is more fraught and rewarding and complex and gratifying (shall I go on?) than anyone can imagine. “We’ve got to be talking,” I thought, and realized I really wanted to try to kick start that conversation.

To that end, I thought I’d share my take aways from the conference. First, if there was one thing that became clear to me, it was that mom bloggers have reach. They have bandwidth.  I figured that out the second I visited momitforward, for example, one of the really amazing blogs referenced in a panel session I attended.  Up to that point, I had no idea that women could mobilize like that!–taking up themes important to moms of all kinds, creating communities, and making great things happen.  Second, while the business of connecting with your tribe through your blogging efforts takes the kind of boundless persistence I would have thought only Olympic athletes or candidates for political office were capable of, even small steps forward invite good things.  I talked to all kinds of other bloggers who were steadily building their communities and having a great time doing it.  Third, if you focus on content that matters deeply to you, eventually you’ll find traction.  Over and over I heard this, and now I guess I’m challenging us all to prove the idea solid.

Finally, I thought I’d share a story that continues to inspire me.  One of the panelists that weekend was Lee Rhodes, of glassybaby.  A lung cancer survivor, she wrestled to get her company going in spite of the fact that naysayers popped up everywhere.  Wasn’t going to work, everyone told her.  No one would ever want to pay a premium for handblown glass votives.  But the light of candles had always kept her going during the dark days of her illness, and she felt so sure of her uniquely artisanal product and its mission that she pushed forward.  Take a look at what glassybaby is doing today, in spite of the fact that when the company was still just an idea, no one thought it could work.  Her message to everyone at Mom 2.0 was that all kinds of “you-can’t-do-it” folks will show up right when you’re ready to start something new and noteworthy.  They’ll tell you why it’s a bad idea.  They’ll tell you not to waste your time.  Do it anyway, was Rhodes’ message, because you might be about to connect with your right life.

For me, that was the big take away from Mom 2.0.  Whatever your own (or anyone else’s) hesitations about your blogging efforts and mission, do it anyway.  Because plenty of people are listening.

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Moms of little ones blog. How happy, that they do! I wish, HOW I wish, there had been a blogopshere circa mid nineties, when I was a new mom in desperate need of perspective, advice, laughs, and an authentic sense of solidarity.

What I find myself wanting now is the conversation about our teens, whom we love just as fiercely even though our interactions with them can sometimes be more fraught. If that conversation is happening somewhere and I haven’t joined in, please, someone, point me toward it! Don’t we all need illumination??

Moreover, I find myself wanting that conversation to focus on how we’re succeeding in spite of the many influences out there that tend to sour parent-teen relationships and erode our teens’ confidence. Because when we succeed, what’s really happening is that love carried the day. And given all that goes on in the lives of teens and their parents, a return to love in its many forms is perhaps the most important thing we could aspire to.

Two things I know for sure (to borrow a phrase from Oprah): successful families are not immune to confusion and heartache. We never know what challenges face the families we imagine to be perfect, and comparing our family to someone else’s is a recipe for unhappiness. Two. We all can create success through the ways we work at loving. Traditions, I suppose we could call them. The most successful families I know of have a commitment to practicing love through traditions that eventually take hold and bear fruit, often in unexpected ways. Those rituals that make our family uniquely ours can be a powerful force for good in the lives of our teens.

So: let’s share ideas about our habits and traditions–the practices that, through their very repetition, function to knit us together, the weave ultimately becoming tighter and more lovely than we have the capacity to imagine.

Moms of teens. And Dads of teens. Time for illumination! How do you work to love? Let’s index our ideas and strengthen our teens in the process!

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Children 1, 2, 3, and 4. All mine. All victims of the nickname gene I inherited from my mother.

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Some moms avoid nicknames, either on principle or because they just don’t have the nickname chip. Me, I must have gotten an extra chip when they were handing them around, because I am an inveterate nickname giver. Always have been. When my oldest (now nineteen) was little, he answered to Clavey, Claveman, Choochi, and Mr. B. (for Mr. Baby), among other things. Both of my girls responded (indeed, still respond) to Dollie, Sweets, My Sweet, and Beauty. And my youngest: he’s Goose, a reference to the goose eggs he wore around on his forehead as a result of trying (and often failing) to keep up with his older brother when he was a toddler.

Those who find nicknames either silly or infantilizing miss the point. And, just to clarify, I’m not talking about nicknames that denigrate the child. However, coming (as they so often do) from a place of affection inside the giver, nicknames signal happy moments. After all, mothers seldom invoke them when they’re frustrated; they do it when they’re at ease with their child and themselves. My own mother called me Peanut. Or Pumpkin. Or Beckola. She’s been gone these fourteen years now, and I still feel a ripple of joy when I remember her voice saying “Dearie,” another one of her endearments for me.

True, sometimes I’ve had to be called out for using a nickname at a completely inappropriate time. Mr. Goose (yes, I’m beyond rehabilitation) had to have a chat with me one afternoon, after I’d thoughtlessly called him Goose in front of the after-school crowd, which was getting up a game of soccer on the lawn out in front of the second grade classrooms. Yikes! You’d have thought I was standing there shellacked in Viva Glam and blowing him big kisses, he was that mortified. So we had the talk–later, when it was quiet, of course. He’s always been one to stage his child-parent confrontations carefully. And he calmly pleaded with me not . . . to use . . . “Goose” anywhere near the playground. I agreed that he was not being unreasonable, and so we came to an understanding.

So, yeah. Time and place. Certainly. Very important.

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Tell me, then. What nicknames do your kids answer to? I might just have to award a tube of Viva Glam lipstick to the mom whose nickname cache is the most inspired.

(Photos: The Eleven O’Clock Kids dead-panning it in Budapest, Hungary.)

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Family Fun in Passau, Germany

by Becky on October 2, 2012

in Food, Fun, Music

When our ship docks in Passau, a quintessentially picturesque city in the heart of Bavaria, I couldn’t be more excited.  A world-class organ in a centuries-old cathedral awaits–a fact that has my oldest son, the music lover, totally “stoked,” to quote his surf team coach.  And the possibility of vintage clothing and/or jewelry stores showing up in our day has my daughters equally breathless.  And narrow, cobblestone streets to zoom up . . . and zoom down . . . well, that’s about all my youngest needs.  Places to stretch his legs and flex his running muscles:  what more could you want when you’re eight?

The cool thing about being in a fairy-tale town in a storied little corner of the world?  Watching your kids, ages 19, 16, 13, and 8, discover it!

Turns out the concert puts everyone to sleep except Young Mr. Beethoven.  Turns out there is in fact the perfect antique trinkets/jewelry store parked on a tiny side street in town.  Turns out the patisseries are spendid.  (What more do you need in your afternoon than a fine piece of cake?)  And with my husband’s omnipresent camera, the story of the day is–voila!–a movie.

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