Stuff and Nonsense

16447087There is an old saying that “two moves are as good as a fire.” I’d never heard that before but after this last move, I’ll opt for the fire. Since I had plenty of advance notice this time that we were moving households, I started constructing boxes and organizing the garage, basement and attic months before the movers actually arrived. Next time I’ll know to do it on the fly. After four months of discovering, examining and either packing or discarding the artifacts of the last eight years (and beyond) of our lives, I got to the point where I wanted to run out of the house while concomitantly ripping my hair out when I came upon yet another box of “memorabilia” or, God save me, “old photos.”

Wikipedia defines nostalgia as possessing a sentimentality for the past. In the old days, it was even considered a medical condition, like melancholia. I’m not surprised. After shifting through box after box of letters and memorabilia from my parents, grandparents—and the tragic journals of 18-year old Susan—I can tell you that the past is a scary place that will make you cry buckets for all that you have lost. There, I’ve said it. I don’t know why I kept all those short stories and poems that I wrote so many years ago (maybe thinking they’d be worth something when I was famous someday? Or did I really have a vision of my great grandchildren carefully handling these letters  with awe and 7536541reverence?) Taking a prolonged peek at college-age Susan was not really a pick-me-up for post-menopausal Susan. Looking at all those notes from my Dad—gone now these past 25 years—seeing his familiar hand and noting the happy occasions he referenced did not do much for my happy mood the rest of the day.

Why do we keep this crap? It’s like we think we’re throwing out the person instead of the hastily-scrawled note from the person. It’s hard to believe that I am not losing my Dad any more permanently or completely when I toss out a card from him than I did in 1987 when he actually stopped existing. All of my memories are at least as comforting and real to me than this stuff is that I drag around behind me, move after laborious move (did I mention this is my 32nd house shift?)

I think sentimentality has its place but it’s not a going-forward, grab-life-by-the-horns kind of place. It’s a sad, let’s-slow-down-and-stare-inward-kind of place. Was I really thinking of creating an altar using all of John Patrick’s 32336839artwork from the third grade? Do I think the teachers’ handwritten notes about his brilliance are as important as the confirming, computerized SAT scores? Do I think by keeping them I’ll somehow make time stand still, or better yet, go backwards to that delightful time when he was five? Then why does thinking of it make me want to cry?

I threw out a lot this last time. I threw out Christmas ornaments over forty years old that were battered and in pieces and made the tree look like one erected at a homeless shelter. I threw out evidence of my hopes and dreams bled out on a page that I’d submitted to the New Yorker Magazine when I still thought I had a shot. I threw out love notes and photos of old boyfriends (and so young Susan), I threw out letters from my grandparents, sports trophies and Mother’s Day cards from my only child, cards from my husband in our courting days.

I can’t truly bring any of these people or  times back and I think my attempt to hang on to these photos and memorabilia—like a terrible, pinching anchor around my neck—was trying to do exactly that. Stupid, really. Those people and those times live in my heart and in my mind.  I don’t need the other stuff to remember them. And let’s face it, for years on end, these artifacts sit boxed and unnoticed in the attic or the basement. Unless I’m waiting to channel it all into eBay gold, it seems kind of silly to only drag them out and look at them every decade when I move household. It seems it’s the having of them that’s important more than anything else. But when you’ve got fifteen boxes of photos, clippings and gee-gaws, well, the having part of the remembering gets downright onerous.

bluehatIn the end, I kept my Dad’s “go to hell” cap that he wore in the Air Force, some awards he earned at the Cape for the Apollo launches, and, well, okay, every note and letter he ever sent to me. I packed them  up with a carefully selected handful of the colorful schoolboy detritus of the grandson he never met, bundled them in a single box with a very few and very special things from my husband and grandparents and placed the box on a shelf in order that it may follow me around the rest of my days. I’m very proud of this solution.  I see it as a mature and measured way to selectively protect the emotional remnants of my past without letting it own me.

Besides, whittling things down gives me room to add more stuff later.

It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

“You know none of this matters, right?”

In the middle of a house move (and a state move, too), my weeks have recently dissolved into a frenetic, painfully long to-do list, each item somehow seeming to represent thousands of dollars more (or not) on our asking price. During a recent visit to The Home Depot as a result of my inaccurate measuring of the carpet piece (idiot!) with which we needed to recarpet our tiny living room and 16292996while the carpet installer waited back at the house twiddling his thumbs, I had a brief conversation with the guy who cut the new carpet piece, wrapped it and scooted it out the door to be loaded atop my Highlander. He was my age (so a Boomer), and had his hair caught in a long ponytail down his back. I hesitate to tell you that in case you decide to discount what he said to me as a result of it but maybe only aging boomers working at the Home Depot really have the  time to parcel out life advice and wisdom. In any case, as I stood in the wide aisle tapping my foot and looking at my to-do list and then up and down the rows of carpeting and rugs, clearly distracted and unhappy with my day, he pushed the rolled carpet on its go-cart towards me and said, “You know none of this matters, right?”
I must have appeared as the poster child for stressed-out, micro-managing control freaks. And when he told me that, so relaxed and friendly and seemingly at peace with his world of minimum wage and dealing with clueless customers all day, my shoulders just sagged in my jacket. Because I knew that. I knew that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. And unless it’s your health, it’s all small stuff.
            I knew that.
And when The Home Depot guy reminded me, I remembered to relax. I remembered that even if the installer guy charged me more for the wait and even if the extra carpet dinged me another two hundred bucks, what was the point of stressing over it? Since my time machine is on the fritz, it is what it is.
And the house will sell for what it does. After all the work and the careful timing, it will sell for what it sells for. And all my pessimism about the real estate market and how it’s not what it was when we bought eight years ago won’t change a thing.
Meanwhile, nobody’s in the hospital and nobody’s undergoing chemo. My 89-year old Mom is happy and healthy and living on her own. My boy is loving his first year at the University of Florida. My husband and I are healthy (and he didn’t careen down the front steps like I thought he was going to carrying that bookcase this morning), the stepkids seem happy, our siblings are all doing great.
            So what the hell??
81356358         Yeah, none of it matters. I know that. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded. As I drove back to the house, I took a moment to hit a Starbucks on the way for a latté. Because honestly, in the great scheme of things, is ten more minutes going to make the house sell better or faster? Is ten more minutes going to make the carpet guy throw down his nails and hammers and storm off?
I got the thing that matters. For now. At least for now.
And that’s all that matters.

“You know none of this matters, right?”

In the middle of a house move (and a state move, too), my weeks have recently dissolved into a frenetic, painfully long to-do list, each item somehow seeming to represent thousands of dollars more (or not) on our asking price. During a recent visit to The Home Depot as a result of my inaccurate measuring of the carpet piece (idiot!) with which we needed to recarpet our tiny living room and 16292996while the carpet installer waited back at the house twiddling his thumbs, I had a brief conversation with the guy who cut the new carpet piece, wrapped it and scooted it out the door to be loaded atop my Highlander. He was my age (so a Boomer), and had his hair caught in a long ponytail down his back. I hesitate to tell you that in case you decide to discount what he said to me as a result of it but maybe only aging boomers working at the Home Depot really have the  time to parcel out life advice and wisdom. In any case, as I stood in the wide aisle tapping my foot and looking at my to-do list and then up and down the rows of carpeting and rugs, clearly distracted and unhappy with my day, he pushed the rolled carpet on its go-cart towards me and said, “You know none of this matters, right?”
I must have appeared as the poster child for stressed-out, micro-managing control freaks. And when he told me that, so relaxed and friendly and seemingly at peace with his world of minimum wage and dealing with clueless customers all day, my shoulders just sagged in my jacket. Because I knew that. I knew that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. And unless it’s your health, it’s all small stuff.
            I knew that.
And when The Home Depot guy reminded me, I remembered to relax. I remembered that even if the installer guy charged me more for the wait and even if the extra carpet dinged me another two hundred bucks, what was the point of stressing over it? Since my time machine is on the fritz, it is what it is.
And the house will sell for what it does. After all the work and the careful timing, it will sell for what it sells for. And all my pessimism about the real estate market and how it’s not what it was when we bought eight years ago won’t change a thing.
Meanwhile, nobody’s in the hospital and nobody’s undergoing chemo. My 89-year old Mom is happy and healthy and living on her own. My boy is loving his first year at the University of Florida. My husband and I are healthy (and he didn’t careen down the front steps like I thought he was going to carrying that bookcase this morning), the stepkids seem happy, our siblings are all doing great.
            So what the hell??
81356358         Yeah, none of it matters. I know that. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded. As I drove back to the house, I took a moment to hit a Starbucks on the way for a latté. Because honestly, in the great scheme of things, is ten more minutes going to make the house sell better or faster? Is ten more minutes going to make the carpet guy throw down his nails and hammers and storm off?
I got the thing that matters. For now. At least for now.
And that’s all that matters.

In Search of an Ordinary Life

JESSICA MCCLUREAbout 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground.

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said:

“After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Even though he was happy before he got famous? Could he really go back to pumping gas after he’d been interviewed by Diane Sawyer?

I think the onslaught of on-demand, 24-hour cable shows, reality shows, movies (and news), helps to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama.

Let’s face it, it’s pretty difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)  While Mr. Draper (Kevin, not Don) is the extreme—he didn’t just watch high drama unfold, he was a participant in it—I think we all lean in the direction of wanting something bigger and more dramatic in our lives.30898733

Ordinary life is subtle. It’s the slow but resulting proficiency borne from years of tedious piano or guitar lessons. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic fantasy of what could be, take the place of what is?

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and pile on the possibilities for superstardom that are really only achievable for a lucky, gifted few, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense. (Or as Mr. Incredible once said, “When everyone is special, then no one is.”)19316210

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

In defense of an unbalanced life

30358445I have believed for years that balance and moderation were the ideal way to live my life. I haven’t necessarily always lived it that way, but I always strove for balance and I always bowed to the wise ones among us who preached it as the roadmap to a sane and happy life. For too many years, I accepted as law and right the idea that your diet should be balanced—not too much chocolate or bacon, just the right amount of greens and protein—your work/family life for sure should be balanced: you might work the odd weekend now and then but you always had it drilled into your head that your kids’ after-school events were at least as important and needed to be put on the scale right up there with the thing that paid the mortgage and put food on the table.

I read somewhere that you should keep your writing schedule consistent in your writing week and if you missed a day, it would be noticeable in the absence of flow in your prose and your storyline. I believed this! I would create these complex schedules that squeezed a good ninety minutes a day of writing into a schedule that contained a full time job and all the stuff I’ve already mentioned and even so no matter when I scheduled it, I rarely made it there two days in a row. And because conventional wisdom said my writing would suffer as a result, I would become discouraged and think, well, what’s the point? YOU try continuing to get up at five a.m. every day to create magic on a page when ALL the experts say if you miss a day you might as well not bother!

For years, I had trouble going to my fulltime job and then coming home and writing novels and setting the table for dinner and properly feathering the nest for my one and only child the way I wanted to. My solution to it, after years of frustration and outright failure, was to throw one of the balls in the juggling mess out of rotation and when you’re a writing parent with a paycheck that’s needed, the ball that gets tossed is writing.

When my fledgling flew the coop last fall and I was concomitantly catapulted from my latest adventure in corporate communications, I thought I would have an easier time fitting in all the things I needed to do in order to have a balanced life: exercise, my writing, time with my husband, keeping an eye on my elderly mother, maintaining my friendships and all of that.  But I was wrong. Even without the annoying full time job hanging around my neck, I still struggled to get the daily word count done for my writing projects.  And the laundry? Fuh-ged-about-it.

Which is why I was stunned to discover that, for me, the key to my productivity was not a matter of balance. Never was.

I learned this last year when I came off a week’s vacation with my husband and son and, without knowing what I was doing, plunged myself into an impromptu writing marathon. We even got a brand new puppy to add to the mix and it made not a whit’s bit of difference to the fact that I was compelled to sit down and write and did so pretty much nonstop for about three weeks.

16342405For three weeks there was no exercising. No grocery shopping. No making meals. No TV. Half the time, I didn’t even climb out of my pajamas before three in the afternoon and wouldn’t have even then if my husband hadn’t started to look worried. I didn’t write to a word goal, I just wrote until my back hurt and I couldn’t sit up at the desk or until my husband called to me to mention it was after one in the morning. I wrote without any sense or desire or attention to balance of any kind.

And I loved it.

When the book was finished, I did laundry and made lasagna and drove my son to his college and visited with my mother in Florida and picked up the threads on a few other things that had gotten dropped during those three weeks.  I didn’t write a single word during this time. And when I was all caught up and the house was clean again?

I sat down and did it all again the very same way: in one exuberant, happy, obsessed gush of words and story, tumbling out of me with no time to mind yoga schedules or laundry or any other so-called necessities to maintain a balanced life.

I figured it out way too late but at least I know now: for me, a balanced life is overrated.

I grant you she's balanced, but she looks miserable.

I grant you she’s balanced, but she looks miserable.

I know if I added an hour of yoga to my daily round, I would likely add health and see diminished pounds on my 5’3 frame. I know the merits of balance and moderation, I do. But I now see that it’s not the full story. It works sometimes and for some people. But there’s something very big to be said for indulgence and impulse and immoderation and being at the mercy of your passions and your drives.

I like living this way. Bottom line, it makes me feel alive. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the best kind of balance there is.

A calorie is a calorie—but thankfully not in Paris

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

Food is everywhere in Paris. Even here.

It’s true Paris is a moveable feast and I’m living testimony to that since I’ve moved it right into my 1950s American suburban house and parked it on the chair beside me as I type. It clearly takes some time to flush the sweet smells and sights of Paris from your brain—or at least it does for me. The photos from our Christmas trip save my screen and take me back there in a flash and to make matters worse, I’m finishing up my latest novel which takes place in Paris so trying to come up for air is just not going to be possible for awhile.

Having said that, I wanted to talk about an amazing feature of travel to Paris that I’ve always been thrilled exists and that is the fact that you can go there—eat everything they have available to eat in the entire city—and not gain a pound.

A whole shop full of chocolate!

A whole shop full of chocolate! This store was nearly a block long. It was FULL of people, too!

Now I’m not so bad that I plan my trip  around French food shops and bakeries and the like although I did ditch my son and husband one afternoon as they headed toward the Arc de Triomphe (huh, been there, photographed that) to race over to Fauchon’s for a mind-swirling self-tour of the cakes and canapés and hams and macarons and buche de noels and oh! did I mention the hand made chocolates? They were laid out in row after dizzying row in different shades and shapes and such subtle flavors and spices—each with the promise to totally change your life with just one bite. I watched the Fauchon ladies—like angels bestowing gifts—plucking each delectable morsel one by one from its line of army chocolate brothers and placing them in big white tissue-lined boxes as patrons selected “this one and oh! that one and maybe two of those!”

I ate these every single day I was in Paris.

I ate macarons every single day I was in Paris. I think I ate this tart, too, now that I think about it.

I know it comes as no surprise to anyone that Paris is about food (well, really all of France.) But knowing it and seeing it are so different. The care and respect and appreciation that the French treat their food makes anyone want to slow down and savor and relish their dinner. We are such different animals, the French and the Americans. Never in a million years could they have invented the fast food restaurant. And while it’s true they do have fast food  in France, I’m convinced mostly tourists go there when they’re too worn out from choosing and discerning, marveling and being transported to culinary nirvana. (Hey, like anything else, it’s tiring day in and day out.)

I can't remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack...

I can’t remember if this was breakfast or just a midmorning snack…

It’s not really a French paradox along the lines of eating all the butter and foie gras you want and not succumbing to heart disease at the rates Americans do, but it is still a delightful state of things that you can eat yourself into oblivion in Paris and not gain weight because the city is such a wonderful walking city. I spent one day the week after Christmas shopping on the rue de Rivoli, Les Halles, the Galleries Lafayette all by myself. I noted to my son and husband later at dinner that, as many times as I’ve been to Paris in my life, this  was the first day I was alone without my parents, a friend or my husband. I found the experience one of the most intensely perfect of my life. I also astounded myself by checking my pedometer when I got back to the apartment and realized I had walked over fifteen miles that day (and I wasn’t done. Our evening restaurant was deep in the Latin Quarter.) As I walked, I couldn’t help but compare my exertion to the ten thousand steps I try to clock in on my daily round back in Atlanta.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

My birthday meal. Chateau briand with pommes frites.

While not exactly loathsome, I can’t say I look forward to my walk as the high point of my day. 10,000 steps is right at five miles. I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to walk five miles a day if you were striding down the Quai de St-Michel under the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral.

In any case, I am back to the real world of trying to artificially create a calorie burn while I labor to concoct food that’s delightful to eat. It’s all so much easier in Paris. Eating and walking are organic to how one lives there. And when you try it on for size for a bit (oh! the macarons!) and find that you do not pay a price for the pleasure later, well, it’s enough to make you realize what Hemingway really meant by a movable feast.

  By the by, if you struggle to keep yourself slim while forcing yourself to eat “diet” food, you might find my book The French Women’s Diet  helpful. I wrote it when I came to the point where I refused to give up bread or chocolate, when I figured I was old enough to know the favorite foods of mine that I wasn’t going to eschew any longer, and when I was determined  to stay a size six in the process—all by eating like the French only doing it here in the States. If you get the book and try it, I’d love to hear from you!

The first time I saw Paris–and lived to tell the tale

Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Having just returned from spending Christmas in Paris with my family, I have all-things-French on the brain and thought I’d publish a post of the first time I  saw Paris when my family moved to France in the early sixties.

There were four of us children living abroad in rural France in 1962. At twelve, Tommy was the oldest. I was next, the only girl, then Kevin, and finally Terry the youngest at eight. In September of 1962, my father, a Major in the Air Force Reserves, had been transferred along with us, his family of five, to a small tactical fighter base in western France. War-damaged and remote, the airbase that would become Chambley A.F.B.—and eventually our home—had originally been used by the Luftwaffe during German occupation in the 1940’s. It was situated twenty miles southeast of Nancy, very close to the German border, in Alsace-Lorraine. After the war, Chambley (named for the village it is nearest to) was abandoned. Its runway was considered too short and its location nonstrategic now that France and Germany were friends again (sort of). It was, however, ideal for the Americans and so, the United States Air Force set up housekeeping under NATO and began to fly its F-86 jet fighters from Chambley as our contribution to the Cold War.
When our plane landed at Orly Airport in Paris that September afternoon, I had seen enough film clips of Jackie Kennedy poised at the top of the non-motorized gangway to take a moment and strike a similar poise when I “saw Paris for the first time.” This was, of course, before the days of the equipment scooting right up to the gate. In 1962, you still had to climb down to the tarmac and walk across the runway to get to customs. It would be a little harder for a romantic child today to weave her way through the Pizza Huts and magazine stands and moving sidewalks inside Charles DeGaulle airport, past customs and baggage claim to where the Metro opens up to take her into the heart of Paris before she ever got to say “I am now on French soil!” There’s a reason the Pope doesn’t fly Coach—he’d never find an empty spot to kiss the ground upon debarking.
Paris in the sixties was, to a starry-eyed nine-year old, the perfected picture of Paris in my dreams. It even smelled different from America, or at least New York City, from where we’d just flown. I’d been practicing my French vocabulary for months, but it was pretty clear, right from the beginning, that learning and speaking a foreign language was not going to be as easy as I thought.
As soon as we landed on French soil, it was clear that we had all taken a huge step back in time. Gone were the neon signs of Rome, New York, from where we’d moved. Gone were the super highways, the outdoor movie theatres, the McDonald’s hamburger stands and early morning television cartoons. Gone also were the bright colors that had earmarked the beginning of the new decade. France was tired and gray and, more often than not, black.
Paris was Paris, however. When I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, I gasped as if seeing my favorite fantasy character come to life. My memory of the first time I saw Paris always has a cheesy, scratchy-record Edith Piaff song playing in the background. Absolutely magic.
Our view of the French countryside was a very different one from the countryside we’d left back home in upstate New York. Although we traveled on the equivalent of an interstate highway in France, it was, in some stretches, little more than a dirt road. The villages looked uninhabited, with dark, largely windowless stone buildings, linked together in long, uninterrupted expanses of filthy, quarried stone. The village looked less like a place where normal people lived and more like a movie set from the eighteen hundreds. It reminded me of the field trip my class had taken the month before to Jamestown where we saw how the pioneers made butter and forged their own buttons and stuff.

Me at age 10 on our first solo shopping trip to Paris with my Mother

Me at age 10 (on the window sill) on my first solo shopping trip to Paris with my mother

The clothes the villagers wore, from their ubiquitous berets to their old men’s baggy pants, were mostly ancient ebony wools. The village facades were dark with a thick patina of coal dust. The roads were unpaved, the villagers’ expressions untrusting and worn. It appeared that urinating in the street—in full view of the world—was de rigueur. Any restaurant or shop could have been easily transplanted back to the 1920s without any loss of believability in the dress, setting or food.
The fact was, from the moment I stepped foot in Ars-sur-Moselle, the remote and hilly village in Alsace-Lorraine that would be my family’s home for the coming year, it was immediately obvious that it was a fantasy world beyond my child’s dreams and expectations.
The house my father had rented for us was beautiful. I could almost hear the sigh of relief from my mother as we drove up to the crest of a long hilly street. The house was fairly large, with a bright orange Mediterranean tile roof. A wrap-around balcony gave access to each of the three bedrooms from the outside. There was a large side garden, a double garage and a full basement.
While it was true that France in the early 1960’s was a fantasy-come-true for us kids, the experience was a rather different kind for our parents. Considered the “arm pit” of France (and often even more colorfully referenced), the airbase where most dependents lived was unlovingly referred to by dependent wives as “Shambles A.F.B.” (Such a kinder, gentler time!) Chambley was too far from Paris, too small, and too much in the middle of nowhere. Plus, the French people in the area surrounding the base were not often terribly gracious with their American visitors. And although I have no doubt our hosts were usually justified in their pique, it definitely didn’t help make for Chambley being considered anything but a demotion or reprimand by the Americans who had been sent there.

My father, standing in front of our trailer on Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, officers quarters.

My father, standing in front of our trailer at Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, this was officers quarters.

There was no obvious standard of behavior for American-children-in-a-foreign-land and no visible enforcement even if we’d known what the rules were. Like the other recently shipped-in American wives and dependents, my mother was stressed out enough just trying to understand the toilets in post-war France without monitoring the movements of her four very active children. And so it happened, never to be repeated in any other time or venue, that my three brothers and I were given an unprecedented freedom. My parents’ desire to believe that no real trouble could come from such a pastoral setting combined with the anxiety of living abroad as part of a military installation—and make no mistake, there were plenty of rules for the grown-ups—allowed us children something I would never be able to offer my own child: the opportunity to roam freely and safely, and to discover the world on its own terms and in its own unique wrapping.
There is an argument to be made that this was simply a manifestation of the time we lived in. My husband, who spent his entire childhood living in one American city in the fifties and sixties, experienced much the same freedom of being able to ride his bike miles from home, or certainly over to a pal’s house, unencumbered by the need for cell phones, pagers, or having to check in with various minders. But even so, it is totally mind-blowing for me today to think that I, a dreamy-eyed nine-year old girl, frequently roamed alone for hours over a foreign landscape. Or that two little boys, aged seven and eight, with only each other as logistic or moral compasses, often did the same. (On the other hand, it’s less shocking to think of Tommy going off on his own since he was always so formidable. Tommy, like my father, had a bigger-than-life quality about him that tended to mitigate the necessity of worrying about his safety.)
I used to roam with my two younger brothers in tow for hours around Paris or Nuremburg or Berlin. Often at night since that was the time my parents were most ready for adult relaxation and socialization in the various restaurants and pubs. We spent many wonderful hours looking in shop windows, discovering alleyways and cobblestone mews, riding the buses, watching the bateau mouche go up and down the Seine. We spent most of our money at patisseries, once went to the cinema to watch largely incomprehensible (and more than somewhat rude) gibberish, lay on the grass in the beautiful city parks, and fed the thousands and thousands of pigeons the ubiquitous crumbs from the remnant pain chocolat that we were rarely without.
I remember sitting with the two of them at the back of Notre Dame Cathedral when it was cool and quiet inside and too hot and summery outside. I remember bargaining one snowy November with the sellers at the Christkindlmarkets in Nuremburg, the golden fairy lights dancing above my head on magical, invisible strings that seemed to hold the whole toy market together, and huge snow flakes falling in slow motion all around.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It's an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It’s an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

In our new home in Ars, we children made friends quickly with the  French children and sucked up the language from the first day. (One of my mother’s favorite early anecdotes involves my youngest brother, Terry, playing tag on the day of our arrival in the village and walking up to a French kid, tapping him on the shoulder and saying: “Vous it.”)
For my older brother, an intense and brilliant (if decidedly quirky) boy of eleven, this meant a serious and determined raid on the French countryside for any and all war artifacts, or what he ominously called his “souvenirs.” Tom’s hallmark at the time was his obsessiveness. This may have been what is today diagnosed as ADD but, in those days, simply appeared to be chronically, single-mindedly bad behavior. His obsessions ruled him. Mostly, these involved aviation, guns, bombs, World War II history, and (scarily) a few imaginary friends. He was highly uncommunicative with his siblings and lived, happily, (for him and us) in a world of his own. During our time in France, Tommy quickly developed a reputation for his exploits and weapons plundering. Later in the year, when my father became Acting Commanding Officer of the airbase, Tommy’s tenacity and inability to give up his munitions raids would prove to be one of the more difficult and frustrating footnotes of my father’s rule.
Besides the lack of structure, the other important discovery we made about our new country was the fact that aside from a few inadequate attempts at farming, the main thing that had been done to the countryside in recent history was that it had been frequently and consistently bombed. This translated into a treasure hunt for adventurous American children who had been taught the value of curiosity and adventure—unlike our petites French counterparts—and to whom the fairly recent events of World War II—in all their glamour—was adventure at its zenith.
There were unexploded bombs all over the place.
Our village, Ars, was very close to the city of Metz and, historically, was an important Roman city with plenty of evidence of its Roman roots. There was a humongous great aqueduct built in the fourth century which looms over a hundred feet on the outskirts of Ars. The stone was dragged from Gravelotte, nearly twenty miles away. This aqueduct was used for centuries and is in remarkable shape for a ruin. Its construction must have been a gargantuan task performed by the Roman army and led by hydraulic engineers of the time.
Another example of the Roman occupation is seen in the great wide boulevards leading to and from the major towns of the region: Nancy, Toul, Lyons, Verdun, Reims. They’re not only wide and flat but shaded by wonderful sycamores to cool the marching Roman armies. I always thought of the soldiers, first planting the trees and then trudging beneath them, every time we sailed under their leafy branches on the way to the base.
It seemed that Metz was constantly being fought over. It was defeated in 59 BC by Julius Caesar and was one of the last Roman cities, in 451, to surrender to Attila the Hun, after which it became German. During the War of Metz in 1324, cannons were first used in Western Europe. Throughout its history it ping-ponged back and forth between France and Germany. One of the reasons for this is that Metz is in Lorraine, the only French region to share borders with three other countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. (Belgium and Luxembourg always behaved themselves, it seems.) Since its location made it a strategic asset as a crossroads of four countries, it was always switching hands. Plus, it has no less than four major rivers running though it: the Rhine, the Moselle, the Meurthe and the Meuse.
With more than 1,350,000 killed in this area in World War I and another 700,000 in World War II, there definitely should have been plenty of ghosts visiting our playgrounds at night.
Anyway, Metz was taken over by the Germans during the last world war and was important enough to serve as a Nazi stronghold full of Nazi party members, and officials. When things started to get hairy towards the end of the war, Hitler actually gave orders to hold Metz and “fight to the last man.” In order to fulfill this wish of der Fuehrer, the 17th SS panzer Grenadier Division joined the 1215th Regiment to defend the town against the obstreperous and very determined Allies. This was in November 1945. We’d taken Normandy seventeen months earlier and were painstakingly moving our way from the coast, through Paris, and on toward Berlin.
Metz sits exactly between Paris and Berlin.
On November 9, 1945, the Eighth Air Force put 1,299 planes, mostly B-17’s and B-24’s, into the task of liberating Metz. 1,233 of them reached the target zone (our new playground a mere seventeen years later) and dropped a total of 3,753 tons of 1,000 and 2,000-pound bombs. It’s no wonder we kids found so many unexploded bombs in the area. In one day, the sky literally rained upwards of five thousand of them. Most of the heavy bombers released their loads from a height of more than 20,000 feet with their targets often totally invisible through the clouds. As a result, most of the payload ended up in the fields and pastures that day with the effort marked, largely, by volume of bombing rather than accuracy. (The liberation of Metz was done by the foot soldier.)
In any case, the battle for Metz involved several skirmishes between the Nazis and the Allies which extended to the fields and vineyards surrounding Ars-sur-Moselle and environs. In fact, the route my older brother’s school bus took every day to the airbase tracked some of the most vicious fighting as it migrated from village to village…Argonne, Arnaville, Thionville, all bombed-out, shuttered near-ghosttowns in 1962, (although inhabited), were ground zero for this terrible battle as the Allies pushed to take Metz.
As recently as 1990, a tractor clearing some brush in a field outside Verdun dug up the skeleton of a German soldier, complete with dog tags and helmet. My mother remembers watching a French farmer on a tractor in 1962 carefully plow around a gigantic unexploded bomb in the middle of his field—as he had done for the preceding seventeen years. So it’s hardly surprising that a bunch of inquisitive, adventure-mad, ten-year old Baby Boomers would find war booty just seventeen years after the war.
Another interesting point about how history came alive for us was the fact that the entire area was a rabbit warren of tunnels connecting the many Nazi forts. The Germans were able to appear and disappear in order to harass the forward companies of the 379th Infantry. Later my brother Tommy would happily reopen some of these tunnels—at least the ones not crammed full of adders or snarling foxes or lynxs. (And more than a few that were.)
My maternal Grandfather fought at Verdun as a doughboy in 1917 during the First World War after the famous Battle of Verdun—waged 48 years before the last gasp at Metz at the end of World War II. Verdun is situated due west of Metz. The Battle of Verdun is considered the longest single battle in world history. It lasted from February 21, 1916 to December 19 of that same year, causing over 700,000 causalities.
Although we kids had been to Gettysburg battlefield back home, the Civil War always felt a lot like looking for Indian arrowheads—too far in the past to feel real to us. World War II was real to Boomer children. Even civilian kids were taught that the epitome of evil was Hitler. The cartoons we watched still showed goose-stepping despots as the bad guy. (Poor Germany sure took it on the chin in popular culture in America for a very long time.) To us, the war was very recent. And in 1962, living in still-war-torn France, we felt like we were right in the middle of it. Right in the middle of the stories our uncles told, right in the middle of America’s greatest triumph as the rescuing good guys. It was great to be an American in postwar France.
The above is a modified version of the first chapter of my memoir Air Force Brat.

How Being Bored is the First Step to Being Brilliant

Take their Gameboys away, and you don’t think they’ll come up with something interesting to do?

I ran across a great blog post this morning from The Passive Voice that I thought was worth noodling about. The premise is “How Boredom Promulgates Creativity.” Aside from the fact that the headline uses the word “promulgate” which will surely give tingles of delight to all word lovers, the idea behind the post is that boredom can create the right atmosphere for creative thought or action.  Edward De Bono, who wrote the book, Serious Creativity, which prompted the original post, uses bored children who operate on their teddy bears as one example of how humans hate a vacuum and might come up with ways—desperate and mad genius ways sometimes—in order to fill it. While this thought might not feel new to you, the upshot (or punch line) that made me sit up straight when I read it was the idea that our technology today may shield us from so much boredom, that the opportunity or driven need to create in order to remedy the boredom no longer exists. Trust me, playing Angry Birds or Solitaire on your smartphone may painlessly while away the time it takes to wait at a traffic light or your child’s visit to the orthodontist—but so does a coma. Neither of them is going to lead to anything special.

When we are forced to tackle boredom via creative means, we push ourselves, our abilities, and our minds forward. We go places we aren’t normally compelled to go. We explore. When we have the means to comfortably anesthetize ourselves against these spates of nonproductive, dull times, we are no longer motivated to do any more than just breathe in and out. My husband argued that we’ve always had mindless television to aid in combatting boredom for an extremely nonproductive outcome and that this post’s supposition is nothing new but I disagree. When I was a teenager—and like most teenagers, prone to being terminally bored with just about everything—I would watch any number of mind-numbing and idiotic television shows: Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeanie. But these shows didn’t dope me against the monotony which drove me to watch them. As I watched—even the really stupid shows—I soaked up plotting, I registered tension and denouement, I experienced character arcs—even in cartoon characters—and I walked away with a sense of a story told with a beginning, a middle and an end.

A little bit of boredom and a stick of chalk can add up to something very interesting…

For a budding writer, lowbrow television was a training ground for something that would come later. It was establishing dormant triggers which would lay beneath the surface and focus a light on interlaced connections between people at their most basic levels. And someday they would emerge as developed characters wrestling with conflict in an attempt to deliver a fundamental human message.

You can’t say that about Angry Birds.

What do you think? I’m not sure I’ve convinced my son, for example, about the new perniciousness of our portable technology as it relates to creativity. Thoughts?

Passing the Baton on the Reality Blog Award

Last week Matthew Wright awarded me the Reality Blog Award. I was surprised and, of course, delighted. Thank you, Matthew. His is my favorite, number-one most-read blog so it’s annoying I can’t turn around and nominate him for this award since nominating awesome bloggers is a part of the responsibility of winning it, but there you have it.

The award also requires me to answer several questions:

If you could change something what would you change? Well, I have to say I’m not in love with this whole mortality thing so if we could all live forever, well, that would be great.

If you could relive one day what would it be? This one was a stumper for me. I guess I don’t dwell much in the past. I’ve had wonderful days that I’d happily relive: the day I eloped to Chicago with my now-husband of 22 years, the day I gave birth to my only child, the first time I saw the Bavarian Alps when I was ten…but I guess I would have to choose, over all of them, any day with my Dad, gone now these past 25 years.

The one thing that scares you? A phone call in the middle of any night that my child isn’t sound asleep in his own bed in my house.

One dream you haven’t completed? I’m in the middle of my dream right now—making a living as a novelist.

If you could be someone else for a day, who would you be? Myself, twenty years younger.

As for passing the award on, I’ve listed, below,  some blogs I regularly read. Some of these are about facts and insights on publishing or writing, some are amazingly spot-on revelations about life (Post Departum Depression—(Karen) who focuses on empty nesting, but the posts are usually true no matter where you are in life and not depressing at all (a lot of the time)), and France because of that whole life-long love affair thing I’ve got going on with it.

Merry Farmer

Julian East

Dean Wesley Smith

Post Departum Depression

David Lebovitz

Roni Loren

Easy Hiker