All Roads Lead to Rome: Finding the Courage to Go On in the Holy City

Posted by Susannah on Feb 10, 2013 in Motherhood, Success Guide, Travel Archives

With the kids in St. Peter’s Square

I finally succumbed to sitting on the grotty stoop of the apartment building by the bus stop.  I leaned away as residents pushed by me to enter their building, muttering something in Italian.  Looking directly up from my perch was another striking old building.  By this point, I was less into the architectural details and more interested in how the little overhang protected us from the drizzle, which had progressed well past the tolerable early evening mist.  It was well past dark.  The kids and I were damp, and although it was July, we were getting chilly from sitting still as we huddled in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the Vatican.

We had crossed the street back and forth and jumped around the block from bus stop to bus stop.  Most of the drivers were kind, and though their facility in English was about as good as my knowledge of Italian, they each assured me that their bus went nowhere near our hotel.  How that was possible puzzled me since our little hotel was in the historical center just off a major thoroughfare. Isn’t there some saying about all roads leading to Rome?   I guessed Rome was just bigger than we realized.  I tried not to complain as it was futile.  We were so hungry for real food, not gelato or street cart popcorn.  I missed my husband and his planning.  I longed for the chipper young Parisian women donning perky green uniforms that we had met a few weeks prior in the Paris metro, with ready smiles and pens and maps in hand.

Honestly, I just wanted to cry, but every time my eyes welled up, my children looked all the more hungry and tired.  I was alone with them.  I knew that had Jorge been here, he would have figured out our transportation home long before we had even left our hotel for the morning.  And if he hadn’t taken care to plan, I could gripe and complain to him, as unjust as I knew that behavior now was.

The stark truth was that after more than 2,000 years, Rome was clearly tired of accommodating tourists.  And after a nine-week odyssey in Europe with my kids, I was ready to go home.

Abigail and Dylan waiting for the bus as the rain starts to fall in Rome

We were stranded, hungry, tired, and cold.  Later when my husband asked why we didn’t just do the obvious and take a cab home, I explained that it hadn’t even been an option for me.  When he and I travel, we have a hard and fast rule about walking or public transport whenever possible.  It’s cheaper, you see more, and you are given a better glimpse into the lives of the people that a cab can’t give. There were chickens under the seat in Bali, a uniformed school boy traveling alone who was almost too small to make it up the bus steps in Japan, and an interminably hot bus in Egypt by the Libyan border that stopped at a roadside shack with the best ground meat kabobs I have had ever had, along with scary looking big men with big guns, lots of flies, and a yucky hole-in-the-ground toilet.  Give up these experiences in exchange for the comfort and security of a cab?  I’d rather stay home.

I also confess I had something to prove.  I could do this trip alone.  I wouldn’t take the easy way out.  After a month with my husband in Spain and Morocco, I had five weeks alone with my kids to see a bit of the rest of Europe and I was going to show the kids, myself, and my husband that this life of a gypsy was in their blood.  Wanderlust would become a part of their psyche by nature and nurture.

But I wasn’t thinking all those lofty thoughts as I cursed the bus schedule under my breath.

Then the moment of responsibility came to me and I was released from my paralysis.  I stood up, looked at my two raincoat-hooded children and knew what we must do.  Though I have a habit of making broad proclamations, I knew I couldn’t force anything.  At this moment, I asked them if we should start walking.  I genuinely wasn’t sure if they had it in them.

They knew it was through the rain, in the dark.  I didn’t know how far we would have to go or how long it would take us.  We were all dead on our feet.  Our legs ached from the long day of walking and standing in our extended tour of the Vatican, preceded by many long days of traveling.

The consensus was to strike out into the dark and start walking in the direction of what we thought was our hotel.  We went a block and then another.  Soon we had crossed the bridge over the Tiber.  Our paces quickened in our soggy shoes as we started to recognize a few landmarks.   We had been walking for no more than 15 minutes at that point.  We soon became giddy with excitement as we realized we were close.  And we had been so close all along.  Within less than half an hour, we were back in our neighborhood and looking at the al fresco dining options.  The rain had stopped, and though we were still wet, we couldn’t help but notice that we were actually late enough to experience dining with the Romans instead of our usual habit of eating in quiet restaurants that were barely open for the evening hours.

As we were seated with our wet bags and jackets hanging off our chairs, I looked at both of my children.  I was so proud of them.  Proud of their bravery, their willingness to take that first step away from the security of the bus stop, and their sense of adventure, not just today, but every day on this journey we had taken them on.

I told them that they must never forget what happened that night.  Never forget how far away we felt from home, how dark the night seemed, and how discouraging the rain felt.  Never be afraid to take that first step away from the complacency of a bus stop into the dark unknown.  Avoid the trap of letting the temporary situations of life, like rain and darkness, hunger and fatigue, overwhelm them and keep them from making their way.   I wanted them to know they always have the strength to make the journey, to remember that more times than not, we are much closer than we think.  Just remember Rome.

And yes…my children do sometimes roll their eyes when I remind them of this night.  But I know that as they grow, there will be many moments in their lives that they think that they cannot go on.  It’s then that they will remember that night in the dark and the rain in Rome and, I hope, take the necessary steps toward their dreams, whether those dreams are as simple as coming home again or launching themselves onto a completely foreign road in an untried direction.


Desperate Bus Stop Moms: My Daily 10 Minutes of Therapy

Posted by Susannah on Sep 5, 2012 in Girlfriends, Motherhood

I have a guilty confession to make:  I am hooked on Desperate Housewives.  Though I haven’t faithfully watched every season, for its final spring season, I was glued to my television set on Sunday evenings.  Of course, the joke in our house has always been which housewife I’m most like—I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that one.  But the more interesting dynamic in this show, and why I am so addicted, is how, in the end, the women stick together and will do just about anything for each other.   Though I’d be hard-pressed to cover up murder for my friends, I have realized that, in many ways, there are a lot of women out there who’ve got my back…and vice versa.

This is how I came to realize that although not necessarily desperate or filthy rich, my friends at the bus stop are my circle, my circle of wagons, that is. They are the ones I go to on a daily basis to cover for me (albeit not for murder).

Last spring, I had the opportunity to go away for six days, leaving my husband at the helm.  I’m at home full-time.  He works full-time.  I’ve been away for girls’ weekends, and we both know that he can take care of the kids for a day or two.  He’s just never had the opportunity to do so for such an extended period.  He was a good sport, and although apprehensive, he was glad to step up to the plate.

My week away went fine.  I returned to find two healthy, if a little bit scraggly, kids.  The house was not up to my comfort level as far as cleanliness goes, but it wasn’t in a state I couldn’t fix within 48 hours either.   The kids seemed more independent, and my ten-year-old son even gave me a genuinely enthusiastic hug when he saw me.  My husband, Jorge, admitted that with all the anxiety he felt before my departure, he actually thought it was good for the three of them to be alone for those six days.  He felt closer to the kids and more appreciative of all I do.

But that’s not the whole story, of course.  The success of the week was in part due to the women that helped him out—maybe not dressed to the nines like Gabby or as wealthy as Bree, but nonetheless they are the women on whom I depend when I  need help, and they were there for my stand-in, too—my husband.  Every afternoon while I was away, a different mom picked up one or both of my kids, gave them a snack, supervised their homework, and often let them stay for dinner.  My husband still had to miss three hours or so of work a day, but he probably could not have pulled off the temporary single parent thing without my women friends.

The most interesting part of this whole story was that Jorge was afforded  a glimpse into the circle of us not-so-desperate bus stop moms each morning.  At about day five, he expressed some concern over what he interpreted as irresponsibility among the bus stop gaggle of women.  I can’t remember his exact words, but he commented about how one mom wasn’t there one of the afternoons to get our kids so another mom took them.  He went on to describe how our kids (8 and 10) were left alone at home for ten minutes while that parent picked up another child.  He was surprised to hear the question one morning at the bus stop: ‘Who will be at the bus stop this afternoon to get the kids?’—in the event that one of the moms couldn’t make it on time.

While to Jorge the idea of a mom just not showing up on time without any advance notice was disconcerting, I thought nothing of it.  I’m constantly late to the bus stop or forgetting that some after-school activity has been cancelled.  Sometimes I’ve not shown up at all, only to realize my mistake when I get a call from Dee or Suzan, who have rounded up my kids on my behalf.

As we stand there in an early morning haze, we pass out tissues or spare gloves and coordinate after-school pick-ups.  We run errands for each other.  We take each others’ kids in the evening.

But our value to one another doesn’t stop with the kids. Often we stand on the corner well after the bus has pulled away with our children, sometimes gripping warm coffee mugs, as we exchange the joys and fears of our lives as wives and mothers.  Not infrequently, it’s my connection with those other bus stop moms that gets me through the day, the week, and even  the year.  Though a few of us are dressed and ready for work, many of us work part-time or from home, so we can frequently be found in slippers and sweats, the raw frustrations of the morning rush still seething in our brains.

One morning, I was so frustrated with my daughter–all forty pounds of her sassy, eye-rolling, foot stomping little body.  What was I doing wrong?  What was wrong with her?  Should I take her to a psychologist?  Would it get better?  What are reasonable consequences? And is locking her in her bedroom for the next 10 years an option?

The four of us who dawdled that morning stood there, contemplating this small crisis.  The other women listened to my ranting non-judgmentally, and all commiserated at some level.  One admitted to having a similar morning with her daughter.  One offered a book suggestion.  Another mom with a teenager gave me the long-term perspective, promising a reprieve for a few years, but then some notched-up intensity later.  This more experienced mom told me it’s almost like her daughter can’t control her wackiness.  So much of these behaviors are spawned by hormones, which makes it difficult to tease out the real issues from those magnified by a body and mind going through puberty.

Of course, intellectually, I knew everything these women told me was true, and I knew it before I ever arrived at the bus stop that morning.  But to have these women reassure me validated my frustrations and made me feel less alone.  I left feeling better about everything, regardless of what might happen with my daughter when she returned home from school that day.  And I knew I was not a terrible mom.  My case was not hopeless.  My bus stop cohorts had assured me my relationship with my eight-year-old was within the range of normal.

That morning was not an unusual experience.

Our bus stop conversations give us the chance to vent about our kids’ slipping grades, to learn which teachers are the best and which are the worst, who to call for evening babysitting help, and what to make for a quick dinner that tastes divine.  We swap diet tips, parenting tactics, and favorite novels. We support job changes, returns to school, career setbacks, and family crises.  We know whose mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, whose child is seeing a therapist, who has tried which anti-anxiety med, and whose husband forgot his wedding anniversary.

On a certain level, my relationship with these bus stop moms is mundane, a completely normal, everyday thing that I think I often take for granted. (That’s why it never crosses my mind to worry when I’m 15 minutes late to pick up the kids.)

But thanks to my husband’s perspective on the bus stop gaggle, I can appreciate the genuine community our little circle provides.  He saw one of the best gifts of my life outside of my immediate family. Jorge reminded me in a way that there are times when the most meaningful part of my day may simply be the ten minutes I stand on that corner with those other moms.


How To Lie To Your Kids…and Turn Frogs into Lizards

Posted by Susannah on Jul 14, 2012 in Motherhood

What I found under Dylan’s bed…see that half-petrified webbed foot?

Lying is bad.  I teach my kids, at great lengths, not to lie.  My husband and I are honest to a point that I believe borders on reckless.  But this week I found myself in an out and out lie.  I lied to my kid.  He’s 10.  And I think he bought it.  Someday when my son reads this, I hope he’ll forgive me, though I pray he won’t become privy to my blog postings until he’s well over 18 and I’m drooling onto my oversized bib while flirting with the plastic potted tree next to me.

As it goes with all lies, I had no intention of spinning this tale.  It started with a practically unheard of desire from the kids to clean out their rooms.  And it wasn’t just a ‘dust the baseboards and sort through the books’ kind of clean.  This was a clean where he removed every item from his bookshelves, worked with my husband to convert his bunk bed to a loft bed, ditched large pieces of furniture, and sent boxes and boxes of ‘treasures’ to the basement for safe-keeping (or until the Goodwill Fairy made her clandestine visit).

There’s nothing like cleaning out a kid’s room to offer insight into just how well the house is being maintained.  Careful housekeeping is not a particularly well-honed skill of mine, but I feel like I can keep order and an acceptable level of cleanliness in a relatively respectable manner for the few rooms that are visible from the front door.  As far as the basement and second floor goes, all bets are off.   That being said, I was surprised at the amount of dust and crud that were unveiled as my son disassembled his bedroom into the living room.

The pile of Lego pieces, random coins from around the world, dust bunnies, lonely puzzle pieces and empty Pop-Its shells offered a sad review of my lack of attention to details in the recesses of his room.  Though most of these items were easily dumped in the bin or reassigned to their respective places, there was one item my son uncovered that was tough to identify. It had obviously once been a living creature.  It seemed to belong to the amphibian/reptile/creepy crawly class of creatures.  And it was completely desiccated.

In a way that only a mother can, I brought to mind my son’s past 10 years and all applicable forays into small creatures, regardless of how brief.   Goldfish, aquatic frogs, beta fish, hermit crabs, Russian Dwarf Hamsters, Fancy White (stinky) Mice, various earthworms and caterpillars, mealworms from science class, and a Spotted African Frog.  All of these creatures had experienced proper burials in a kind of mass grave in the corner of the back yard with a lovingly handmade cement octagon for a headstone, complete with glass marble gems and the first pet’s name ‘Quinky’ etched in the concrete.  All but two.   It was unnecessary to empty out matchboxes or save mini-cereal boxes for the Spotted African Frog or the Russian Dwarf Hamster, as  no bodies were ever recovered.  They were both deemed MIA, and a memorial service was conducted in corpus absentia.

We never solved the mystery of the escape of those two residents of the ten gallon glass aquarium which served as home to many of Pet Smart’s best.  At one point, Dylan was convinced that it was a cursed aquarium that off-gassed in a conspiracy to kill all his pets or, in the case of the Russian hamster and Spotted African Frog, caused them to run for their lives.

The hamster disappearance was likely related to a rodent problem we once had. Little house mice.  About the size of a Russian hamster.  It was the same winter that Fuzzy escaped. Did Fuzzy join ranks with the others and start her own family of Ham-Mice and eventually succumb to the trap?  Or is she living out her days in our shed, nibbling on the bags of fertilizer and the lawn furniture cushions.  I’ll never know as I desperately pleaded “it’s a man’s job” to mouse trap duty and disposal for months following the escape of Fuzzy.

But it’s the Spotted African Frog that my mind quickly reeled to that evening as I was examining the pile of miscellanea from behind my son’s bookshelf and under the radiator.  I could see vague spots, a long leg extended and a distinctive little webbed arm sticking out as if to say, “Yes!  Freedom!  I’ve made it.”  Yet how true in life that when we get something we’ve been dreaming about, we are often left rather dried out and alone.

I started to tell my son that it was definitely his frog.  But then I remembered the moment he came to me when he was about seven, eyes welling over with tears.  He said that his frog was gone, and he didn’t think he could ever keep anything alive.  Every pet that he had cared for had died (rather quickly I might add.).

I remembered trying to comfort my frog-mourning son.   I had exaggerated the significance of this sad announcement, mentally multiplying it by a quadrillion, as again only a mother can do.  I began to worry about his emerging self-image, self-confidence, ego, sense of well-being, ability to develop lasting long-term relationships, placement on the autism spectrum, indicators for future drug and alcohol abuse, emergence of OCD behaviors, and the chance of developing  a psychopathic personality disorder.  And I quietly held him till he stopped crying.

That moment was etched in my mind.  And it all came flooding back as I squatted on his bedroom floor, examining the pile of crud.

And that’s when I lied.  He made it easy by suggesting the remains looked like a lizard.  A ‘lizard’ had never made our pet list.  But there were lizards where we went to the beach in North Carolina.  And ostensibly one little critter could have sneaked into the beach house, run up the carpeted steps, crept into my son’s bin of Legos, and hitched a ride north.  .

It’s all possible, if not probable.  Especially when the dehydrated creature looked like a frog.  An African Spotted Frog.  From Pet Smart.

I know that caring for pets is a significant part of growing up.  Learning responsibility.  Learning gentleness.  And learning that when you lose something you love, it will hurt.  You’ll cry and you’ll talk about it.  But you’ll move on.  The pain will slowly be replaced with softer memories, and there will be other joys that will trickle in, eventually leaving more happy yesterdays than sad todays.

It’s just that Dylan had learned this lesson.  Numerous times.

I didn’t feel the need to rehash it all as we were crouching on his floor surrounded by the chaos of a disassembled bedroom.  So I lied.

I agreed and confirmed that it did, in fact, look like a lizard.  The little lizards that scampered around the pool and up under the planks of the second floor decks at the beach.

Sweeping it up amidst the other dust and debris of a 10-year-old boy’s life, I thought about how much my son had changed from that tearful little boy who was heartbroken about a lost frog.  He was now closer to launching.  Closer to leaving.  Closer to acne and girlfriends and college and heartbreak and all-nighters and all that is and ever will be about becoming a man, a husband, and a father himself.  And something tells me that no matter how upright and honorable a man he becomes, he’ll know when it’s appropriate to turn a frog into a lizard and give some of the debris of life a little sweep under the rug.


Didn’t Get a Lexus for Mother’s Day? You’re Not Alone….

Posted by Susannah on May 10, 2012 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

I’ve heard more negative flack about Mother’s Day than I care to think about.  This Sunday in May is so built up that nothing short of the honor afforded to the Queen Mother could even begin to meet the expectations of the average over-tired, overwhelmed, and over-stressed Mother.

Why is it the mere mention of Mother’s Day is often met, not unlike Valentine’s Day, with groans and eye-rolling from many otherwise reasonable women?  I think it has to do with the breadth of space between Hallmark-inspired expectations and sobering reality.

This crevasse is littered with disgruntled moms who remember years of making brunch for their mothers-in-law while they themselves had very young children tugging at their skirts, golf outings scheduled by husbands while moms stayed home with the kids, boxes of favorite chocolates thoughtlessly given in the midst of hard-won weight loss goals….

I remember my first Mother’s Day.  I was in a group of young mothers who all had children born within a few months of each other.  Usually this group offered comfort to me as we all commiserated over the common experience of new parenthood.

The problem was that one of these women got a Lexus SUV for Mother’s Day.

Excuse me?!?

Though no one bothered asking, we could assume there was a bouquet of roses arranged elegantly on the hood with the big bow…and dinner reservations with a babysitter arranged.

You can imagine how the conversations went at home that evening…between every couple but one.

So why has this Sunday in May become the resting place for such a storm of emotions?

In an effort to figure out just what the problem was, I decided to interview some women who actually looked forward to Mother’s Day and all the sentiments it supposedly embodies.  The resounding message from every mom with a positive view of the day was that, like most events for women, Mother’s Day joy is up to you.  That’s right, Mom. Don’t expect hubby and the kids to rise to the occasion on this one.

I was most impressed with Danielle, whose husband gave her the day off on Mother’s Day.  Of course, she reciprocated on Father’s Day.  This is what Danielle, mother to two sets of twins, had to say:

“Not sure how we started it, but I’m pretty sure it was when we realized that with four young kids, there is no such thing as a true day off, ever.  So we let each person spend two days a year — their day (Mothers/Fathers) and their birthday in any way they choose: your time is your own, and no one can make demands on it.”

In other words, you can make the family go for a day hike with you, or you can go spend an entire afternoon at the spa…blissfully alone.

Ask Danielle if she likes Mother’s Day, and you’ll hear a resounding “yes.”

Another very content mother of four told me she recognizes Mother’s Day by remembering that she is a mother because of her kids.  It’s more like Mother-Child Day to her.  “All I want is a day of treasured memories,” Christine told me.  “A Great Mother’s Day is when the Mom realizes it’s not truly her day!”  Christine makes sure she carves out other special moments to pamper herself during the year but doesn’t make Mother’s Day about herself.  As a result, she never gets the Mother’s Day Blues.

Perhaps these two great moms know the little secret that it took me years to figure out.  Some of the best mothering advice I’ve ever received was: claim the time you need.

As I was complaining about how my husband spends an hour or two in front of the television many nights, a wise friend of mine asked me why I don’t do the same.  She continued to say that the reason I don’t have down time is that I don’t take down time.

I had to admit she was onto something.

Maybe my relaxation wouldn’t take the form of a prime time show but an afternoon latte with a friend, a walk at lunch, a rest on the sofa with a magazine on a Sunday afternoon, or a decadent piece of chocolate eaten when no one was around to beg me to share.

Unfortunately, mothers overall tend to play the masochist.

Few mothers, especially those with very young children who need a break the most, really know how to give to themselves without feeling guilty about it.  But this “mother-as-martyr” serves no one and only heightens the resentment so many overworked and under-appreciated moms already feel.

Mothers need to adopt a new paradigm.  That means we have to stop begrudging the fact that our family hasn’t given us the proper deference on the one day artificially pumped up by Hallmark and brunch venues to honor all our sacrifices.  Instead, we need to give ourselves the gift of kindness on a regular basis.

But this advice doesn’t always work for the most vulnerable of mothers–the new ones.  Not only do they lack the perhaps unfortunate experience necessary to understand no one is going to pamper them but themselves, but they also likely have the least ability to do it amidst piles of soiled diapers, inconsolable crying (that would be the baby’s, just to clarify), and the general sleep deprivation that leaves them too mentally fried to pour formula into a bottle without spilling much less pour themselves a glass of wine.

New dads, step up to the plate.  This is the one special Mother’s Day that rests squarely on your shoulders.  This is the Mother’s Day where your beloved has embarked on a journey that will shape the rest of her life.  She’s exhausted and overwhelmed, questioning her abilities, her sanity, and maybe even her choice to become a mother in the first place.  She needs some affirmation–to be told that she is still beautiful to you, that you are astounded at the miracle of her strength, and want to honor her.

The deal is that if you exceed expectations on that first Mother’s Day, you’ll be set for the next 18 years. Because honestly, the kids will make sure the rest of her Mother’s Days are full of scrawled hand printed cards and Dixie cup marigolds.

So what if you can’t buy a Lexus SUV?  It doesn’t need to be that big, but a handwritten card that makes her cry is a good start.  And, in a pinch, even a Hallmark card with lots of mushy stuff could work if she’s into that.

And see if you can’t swing a good piece of jewelry that’s classic and substantial enough that your newborn infant daughter may consider wearing it for her wedding someday. And for super-bonus points, don’t forget to mention this line of sentimental “daughter’s-wedding-day” thinking as you’re sliding it on her finger or holding her hair back from her ears as she puts on the diamond studs.

Don’t have such deep pockets or are lucky enough to be married to a non-bauble-loving woman?  How about planting a pretty flowering tree that will “grow with our new baby?”

The key is to put real thought into it.  It will pay off in future years.  Don’t be afraid that you’re setting a precedent (for I know that’s what you fear).  Instead, realize you’re paying it forward.  By overdoing it this year and putting the idea into her head that this is your year to do Mother’s Day, you’ll avoid beginning her life as a mother with that snowballing of resentment that causes women to say they hate Mother’s Day with as much passion as they do V-Day.

But ladies, remember that, aside from the first Mother’s Day when you’re having enough trouble taking care of a tiny little one much less yourself, redesigning Mother’s Day rests on your shoulders.

Anytime a woman depends on others to meet her needs, she will end up short. If you really want your Mother’s Day to be perfect (or any day really), make it that way, and seize your own joy.


Delving Deep into VPL: Are We Crossing the Line?

Posted by Susannah on Mar 27, 2012 in Girlfriends, Men

I will admit that a few years ago, I didn’t even know what a VPL was.  That’s when I heard two of my friends discussing the issue with the kind of seriousness reserved for topics like the national debt.  After that brief yet impressionable experience, it was all over for me.  Ignorance gone.    Naiveté shattered.  I was faced with the stark awareness that I had long overlooked the power of this small V-shaped indent.

I’ve been confused about it ever since.  Women really think about these things?  I soon had to admit there is a time and a place for everything.  And visible panty lines are no exception.  After all, there’s nothing like a well-coiffed woman dressed in a curve accentuating frock, with puckering lines on her tailend interrupting her sexy lines.

And there are times, particularly when I’ve got a little extra on my hips, that I’ll succumb to wearing pantyhose or other cellulite firming contraptions under a pair of dress pants.  It gets ‘em zippered and avoids the panty lines that seem to be sinking a little deeper into my padding that week.  I guess I’m avoiding SVPL—super visible panty lines perhaps?

My concern is the over-obsession with panty lines.  I was recently shopping with a friend, and she was buying ‘anal floss,’ as she calls it—to wear to the gym.  She literally has specific gym panties.  I thought about how uncomfortable and sweaty I am to begin with at the gym, hemmed in with a tight sports bra and trying to keep my new stylish half-bangs from dripping sweat into my eyes. Then I cringed at the thought of having a permanent thong weggie.

Who cares if I have a panty line at the gym?  I don’t have much make-up on, and I probably vaguely stink of the underside of the gym mat.  Is it actually possible that someone is looking at my backside?  In the off chance that some guy would check  me out under these less than ideal circumstances, might I venture to say that a panty line would hardly make a difference?

This begs the question, however, as to why we have to wear panties at all.  I can understand that with a pair of ‘dry clean only’ dress slacks, another layer between my nether regions and my lined wool pants is totally legitimate.  And definitely in a pair of jeans.  Imagine the chaffing.  But in a pair of Yoga pants?  I’m wearing them for three hours and then tossing them in the laundry anyway.  I’m trying to shed my stress and elevate myself to a higher level of being.  Maybe panties are what’s been hindering my success in reaching enlightenment?   I guess I’d also like to simply offer up the notion that VPL or not, perhaps it’s a bit redundant to have another sweaty layer between me and a breath of fresh air.

Of course, hot and sweaty or not, I still tend to fall on the side of the fence that fully endorses VPL at the gym, as it means that P’s are being worn.  This reminds me of the unfortunate view I had of the woman in front of me at the gym as we were doing quad stretches, derriere extended.  She had chosen to go commando, maybe concerned with VPL? Unfortunately, her pants had gone through a few too many washings and were wearing thin.  Sorry for that mental image, but in the interest of full disclosure, such a fashion faux pas must be acknowledged.  Heck, even with a pair of thong panties, this could be an issue.  Lesson here, gals?  Always check the fabric durability of your workout gear.  Just like changing the oil, be sure to check those pants every 3,000 miles.

I’ve done a little research on the source of VL, and after sorting through the unmentionable riff-raff that came up on my Google search, which would have made Mr. Klein blush, I found an interesting article which cited a book by John Esten called Unmentionables: A Brief History of Underwear.  In it, he claims that panties were developed, in part, “as a Victorian attempt to control and hide genitalia and physique.”  Hmm….

The difference between these Victorian ladies and us is, of course, that they didn’t have an issue with VPL, as most of their lines were well padded, pouffed, hemmed-in, and laced up.   But I’m not so hidden from view. Even modest clothing today leaves very little to the imagination.

The economics of this issue is a whole other side.  In an article printed in The Los Angeles Times several years ago– “The Road to Profit, Paved with Panties”– Leslie Ernest states that the intimate apparel niche is a $9.1 billion industry in America.   We’re spending a lot of money on something that few people see.  It reminds me of the LensCrafter commercial where the old couple is glasses shopping.  After she slips on a pair of glasses, the old woman’s husband is instantly transformed into a svelte, sexy young man.  The voiceover says, “Unless your glasses are this good, you’re paying too much.”  Can I be so bold as to offer the same premise up for panties?  I think we’re paying too much, buying into yet another beauty myth.  Unless it’s taking ten pounds off, we’re being duped.  I would never go so far as to say that there’s not a legitimate time and place for smokin’ knickers.  It just seems like, as a culture, we’ve bought into yet another advertising lie that a few flimsy pieces of nylon, cotton, or lace really do provide an edge.  Sexy skivvies can give change in attitude?  Perhaps.  And yes, sexy is how you feel, not necessarily just how you look.  If panties give you that edge, go for it.  But I’d have to return to my initial gripe—sexy is not the vibe I’m interested in giving off in my mid-morning Body Pump class with a bunch of stay-at-home moms, gay men, and aging mavens.

When I brought this topic up to my trusty bus stop council of moms, there was no consensus.  Some women were legitimately concerned with VPL, and also VBL.  Yes, yet another line to worry about.  Interestingly, in our age group (well over 30), the greater concern was the back-fat induced bra lines (VBL).

I realized it was time to poll the guys. Did they notice VBL, VPL?  Did they care?  One woman went as far as to contend that our concern about VPL is just another example of “Girl on Girl Violence.”  That got me thinking.  Is our obsession with panty lines really just another way that we are undermining each other as women, fearing catty comments and less-than-approving glances at girls’ night?

My next panel included a group of professional men over, well, 40.  Maybe not exactly men on the prowl, but all my girlfriends are married to men no longer in their twenties.  (My other issue with twenty-something’s is that it’s a tough topic to casually drop into conversation with young men—I thought of asking the ruggedly handsome young barista at Starbucks this morning, and it crossed my mind as I was walking the kids to the bus stop and a lawyer-type twenty-something smelling of aftershave wafted past me on his way to the metro.   I’m sure my husband is relieved to know that I held my tongue in both cases.)  So in the interest of what little modesty I can say I have, I hired my friends to bring  the topic up with their husbands.

To our surprise, we found men do, in fact, notice panty lines.  And to them, it’s generally not a value-add for the whole image.  The consensus was that it was all about context.  In the work place and at the gym, it was generally not an issue. These nice men asserted convincingly that they were not really thinking along those lines in either place.   But these happily married men did say that a VPL on a woman in a more sexually charged environment, like a bar, club, or party, was definitely a negative distraction.  They went so far as to say that a VPL on well-dressed woman could over-ride the whole picture.  When we dug a little deeper with these guys, they asserted that VPLs are often correlated with other problems, such as an outfit that fits poorly, inferior fashion judgment, and even hint at a less than classy or even a ‘trashy’ stereotype.  They suggested that a woman who shows her lines is often missing the boat in other areas, too.  They read all this in a VPL? And they think we over-analyze….

Alas, we’re back to my original assertion that there is a time and a place to worry about the VPL.   But I’ll have to retreat on the suggestion that it’s another example of women setting an unrealistically high standard for other women.  If the guys I talked to admit to noticing, then it’s clearly not gender self-imposed.  Although we then have to ask if a married woman needs to worry about looking attractive to a man who is not her husband.  I’ll save that for another blog. Perhaps on Burkas.

So today, in the interest of research,  I’m game for the challenge.   I’m heading out to the gym, panty-free.  I’ve checked the durability and opaqueness of my pants, and I’m ready to buck the system.  I’m saying “no” to the lingering Victorian underpinnings still latent in our society and the rampant commercialism that’s feeding the fire.  And I’m saying ‘yes’ to anyone who happens to be checking me out from behind.  So if you are among the mid-morning crowd at the Ballston Gold’s, please don’t hesitate to notice.  You’ll see I’m ‘line-free.’


Emblem of the “Perfect” Life: The Family Holiday Photo Card

Posted by Susannah on Feb 26, 2012 in Motherhood, Musings

My first family Christmas photo

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m finally getting the last of the random pieces of Christmas put away.  A month or so ago, the Christmas decorations were unceremoniously stashed into a heap in the basement.  ‘Out of sight; out of  mind’ allowed me to procrastinate even further. Finally, however, everything is organized and stacked in passably neat boxes in the corner of the basement.  The only thing left is a pile of Christmas cards, which are actually still on the mantel.

I guess the cards linger because the real tradition I cling to is the Christmas card.  Those memories go as far back as I can remember.   There are people who have received a card from my mother every year since I was born.  And it’s always been a photo card.  Thankfully, she’s finally released my sister and me from being the stars of the card. We owe her relinquishment to our children, who now occupy center space on the family photo cards.

I must admit to having ambivalent memories of taking the Christmas card picture as a kid, especially in our teen years.  If I could get my older sister to chime in on this one, we’d probably go on way too long.

Although we often took the picture on Thanksgiving, if there was an early Pennsylvania snow, we knew it would mean bundling up and getting our smiles and knitted grandmother sweaters on before the heavy, wet snow fell off the pine trees.  We’d pose for frame after frame depicting tender and joyful sisterly love.

Portrait of the perfect family.

Jessica and me--the portrait of sisterly love

Isn’t that what the holiday card is all about?  I don’t think it’s necessary to hash up the past, and I know my mother may be saddened to see this in writing, but there was nothing that would crush the holiday spirit more quickly than the hassle of trying to take that Christmas card picture.  After shooting a full roll, we’d rush over to the store to get it developed and hope for the best.  There were no digital pictures back then, so we would have to wait days before learning if the shot was Christmas card worthy.  A fake smile, double chin, closed eye, or the accidental arrangement of a telephone pole would mean starting back at square one.   Of course, technology moved us forward, though sometimes not in a good way.  I remember a particularly weak card one year where we actually photoshopped in my sister.  Unfortunately, the technology just wasn’t quite where it needed to be.

Today, however, as I now have children of my own and have continued my mother’s tradition of sending photo cards that chronicle Dylan’s and Abigail’s lives, I see a different side of it all.  Christmas cards are a perfect platform to keep connected with friends that you may not have seen in years. It’s an active way of saying, “I still think of you.”  It stands in high contrast to the way in which we have all become voyeurs  to the lives of practical strangers on networks like Facebook where our ‘friends’ number in the high three and even four digits.

Kids and Cats

The Christmas card is a perhaps more antiquated version of our modern social networking outlets.  It’s like a once-a-year Facebook post on the family.  We announce new babies, new marriages, new homes, and new jobs.  We chronicle our family trips, promotions, All-Star teams, ballet classes, home upgrades, prestigious college admissions, passions for everything princess, honor rolls, potty training success, new pets, dead pets, new careers, mom’s first girls’ weekend, broken legs, and birthday bashes. . . . The Christmas card is the perfect place to put forth each family’s “ideal self.”

And I guess that it’s a good thing that no one really tells it like it is.  Imagine getting this on a card: “Kelly has started to struggle with self-induced vomiting and has dabbled in drug use.  Joey finally got diagnosed with ADHD and aggression issues after stabbing three other children with a pencil.  And Gary and I have broken into the kids’ college fund to pay for rehab and marital counseling after he found himself with over $12,000 worth of charges from online porn sites.”

Tom-foolery: our way of rebelling against the dreaded "Christmas card photo"

Yeah, it’s mostly just the good news.  Although there is sad news that can’t be sugar-coated or avoided.  Christmas cards force me to face the heartbreak.  One card we received shared the tragic news of a life-changing injury sustained by a dear friend’s husband while serving in Iraq a few years ago, explaining why we had not heard from the couple in a several years.  They’re just now starting to send cards again.  Another card we sent, addressed to a couple, was answered with a phone call sharing the sudden loss of a husband this past summer.  And the sadness can’t be more poignant each year when we see a little halo over the name of a friend’s baby who died of SIDS five years ago.

And there’s the unavoidable news of name and address changes brought on by divorces.  My husband claims I have more divorced friends than anyone he knows. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that each year, there are one or two new splits to add to the list.  Of course, there are other couples where we are more surprised to see that they are still together year after year.   It does make me wonder sometimes what bets are placed on my husband and me. . . .

Mom Finds New Subjects: The Grandkids!

So for me, it’s not a bragging letter, the picture, or the foil-lined envelopes.  Instead it’s the poignant moments that come when I’m going through the list in January, editing and updating.   I sort through the envelopes, updating and correcting my list.   I remember my mother doing the same, though with the advancement of technology, I do it a little differently.  She had a flowered address book, with addresses written in pencil so new addresses and changed names could be easily edited.  Albeit impersonal, I now I use an Excel spreadsheet.

As streamlined as my system is, it begs the question of what to do when someone dies.  For my mother, when someone died, she’d just put ‘dec.’ and the date.  She never erased a name.  But since I use the spreadsheet, instead of a little note by the name like my mom did, I delete the deceased spouse, making it ‘address ready.’  This year, I was overcome with the harshness of it all.

So for 2012, I added a few babies, changed a handful of addresses, inserted a few rows to accommodate where one household had become two, and added a Mr. & Mrs. to a few lines.  But the hardest change was when I deleted my Aunt Amy’s name last week, who succumbed to cancer a few months back.  Though I’ll continue to send a card to her partner, her own name was now gone from my list.  No pencil mark “dec. 10/26/11” like I remember seeing in my mother’s tattered Christmas address book.  Although I know the feelings of loss and change are still the same, at that moment, the process felt overcome by mechanization.

Maybe that’s why my cards are still on the mantel in the little snowman card holder my kids made for me.  And I guess I’ll keep them there as long as it takes to shed those tears that still seem to come out of nowhere when I think of Aunt Amy, and that will eventually be tempered  by remembering all the fun times with her and her consistently artistic and ‘laugh out loud’ funny photo Christmas cards.

And I’ve decided to make some changes on my Excel spreadsheet Christmas card list, too.  Instead of deleting grandparents and favorite aunts’ names, I’m going to insert a column, right after the address.  I’ll simply cut and paste each lost loved one’s name to this new column, and label it “dec.”  at the top, as a nod to my own mother’s wise ways.

A new generation of family models

I’ll also try to find more balance —the more technology that’s available, the more my life is convenient and streamlined.  But with these advancements comes the need to guard against being overcome with the soullessness of it all.  No technology can ever fill the void left when that last Christmas card from a loved one is opened.  In fact, with all the scientific advancements, we still can’t predict just when it will be that last card.  Maybe that’s why the cards linger on the mantel.  I have a need to hold onto something more tangible than an Excel spreadsheet on a blinking screen. Instead I have the smiling photo cards, the sweet handwritten signatures of small children, and the understanding at last of the necessity, on some level, to preserve a “perfect” past. It helps us cope, you see, with a sometimes imperfect present where heartbreak is real.


Yelling Into the Men’s Room

Posted by Susannah on Jan 31, 2012 in Motherhood

If I was asked today if I could choose one word that encapsulates parenthood, I would have to choose the word “transition.”  It seems like how I handle the never ending changes in my life and my children’s lives is a great predictor of how I’ll fare in this day-to-day journey called ‘parenthood.’

Transitions began even before the moment our first child was born and officially entered our lives. As any parent knows, the minute you know you are pregnant, your outlook begins to change.  In fact, even earlier than that for me.  As soon as we transitioned our marriage to the ‘let’s start trying’ stage, a paradigm shift occurred.

And as many books as I’ve read, websites that I’ve scoured, and parenting groups that I’ve joined, there are moments that make me believe that it’s impossible to always be ready for what’s ahead.  One moment that I’ll never forget was when I was blindsided by a transition moment in Target one afternoon.

As never fails to happen, the minute my kids and I were buried in the back of the store, the farthest corner away from the restroom, my son had to go to the bathroom.  I was relishing a few moments of retail therapy in the bedding section, imagining how a new duvet really would inspire me to keep my dresser cleared off.  Perhaps such a nicely appointed bed would even get my husband to put his clothing in the hamper.

Trying not to be annoyed about being torn away from bed linen therapy, I grabbed my son’s hand, tossed my daughter in the cart, and got the three of us to the front of the store in record time. Out of breath, I abandoned my cart, picked up my daughter and dashed into the women’s room.  Ignoring my hard and fast germ phobic rule, “the stall at the farthest end of the row is the cleanest,” I blasted into the first stall, announcing our arrival with a resounding crash. Standing in the germiest of all stalls, I suddenly realized my son hadn’t followed me. I came out of the women’s room just in time to see the men’s room door close like the jaws of a trap.  I called his name, and lunged toward the door labeled “Men.”

I stopped myself.  What was I doing? I had almost walked into the men’s room, four-year-old daughter in tow.  Is that illegal? If not illegal, certainly over the top.  My son was simply taking a right of passage, one that I didn’t see coming.

I knew then, as I do now, that for a boy to choose to use the Men’s Room instead of following his mother into the Women’s Room was developmentally appropriate, but it was still a tough moment.

I lingered outside the door, probably a little too close.  I was trying to look casual, like I belonged twelve inches from the men’s room door, holding an overstuffed mommy purse and a squirrely four-year-old.  I feigned intent interest in examining the restroom maintenance check list.  I conjured up a curiously strong concern as to why “Y.N.” had not initialed the square for ‘checked soap dispensers’ at 8.  I was appalled to see that from 9:30 am until 10:45, the men’s room had been completely neglected with absolutely no initials in any of the little boxes.  Is this an issue for customer service?  Perhaps I should write down the 1-800 number listed below the “If these restrooms do not meet our high standards, please do not hesitate to contact us.”

But, my gosh, my son was still not out.  He was breathing in that air, no doubt touching things, in the less than perfectly maintained restroom.  His soap dispenser may not be full since employee “Y.N.” had been slacking on the job.  I was beginning to sweat.  And I had absolutely exhausted all material of interest anywhere near the men’s room door.

I was beginning to look a bit conspicuous.

How hard could I push my agenda on this one?  How much closer to the boldly lettered MEN sign on the door could I hover without looking like a Wack-O?  I imagined all the possible scenarios that could be going on during the 65 seconds since he had left me.  There are such perverts in this world.  Every horrible scenario flashed though my head.  I wished I had told him just one more time not to talk to anyone or touch anything, or even look at anyone.

But these moments rarely lend themselves to that last heart to heart.

Knowing full well that I was humiliating myself, I yelled through the door once, just once, “Everything OK in there?”  No one answered my call–probably a good thing.

A man walked through the door drying his hands on his jeans and almost tripped over me.  With a stumbling man as my cover to distract anyone who could have been watching, I stretched my neck to get a look inside.  Nothing.  Then I almost went for it.  Images of a desperate mom bolting through the men’s room door still haunt me.
Suddenly, Dylan nonchalantly came out.  To me, it was as if he had just taken his first wobbly step, or was stage bound, marching to Pomp and Circumstance, or walking down the aisle to Mendelssohn, new bride on his arm.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t exactly that big, but it was definitely a moment.

I knew that as he stepped over that threshold labeled “Men’s,” he was a little closer to becoming one himself.  I was relieved that I had given him the space to make that transition. After all, if I couldn’t let go, how silly would I look in the years to come, escorting him on one of those other important walks?  Not to mention the obvious that one of us would run into trouble with the law if we didn’t get the public restroom thing worked out.

There’s a theory in potty training and reading-readiness that one must ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ so to speak.  I guess it really applies to all transitions for children.  When a child feels ready, it’s important to support and encourage. If I had given my son the message that he wasn’t old enough to go into the men’s room, he would have received a ‘no confidence’ vote.

I’m not naive enough to think that I haven’t made bad judgment calls many times since then.  And I know there will be many times in the future when I do cross what’s become to me the proverbial ‘threshold to the men’s room.’  After all, kids still need boundaries and guidelines, and it’s a tricky line to walk.

But the older my children get, the more difficult these boundaries become.  Movies, sleep overs, music, parties, driving, dates.   They ask to do more, they’re more capable, they understand more, and they present better arguments.

Just this afternoon I had to explain to my eight-year-old daughter why she couldn’t sell Girl Scout Cookies up the street on her own.  When the obvious “because its unsafe and you’re not old enough” didn’t carry enough weight, I finally resorted to the old standby, “’Cause I’m your mom and that’s my rule” line.  When the predictable retort, “But Claudia’s mom let’s her,” was delivered, I resorted to another old standby, “Well, Claudia’s mom must love her daughter more than I love you.”  The discussion was over.  To resort to sarcasm was an even lower blow, and we both knew it.  Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

And though I don’t think there’s much of a chance of my daughter selling door to door to strangers any time soon, sometimes I do just have to take a step back and revisit the men’s room door.


How I Stopped Hating Paris…and Started Loving the Unscheduled Life

Posted by Susannah on Jan 15, 2012 in Motherhood, Musings, Travel Archives

My daughter drawing leisurely in Venice

As I sat on the steps outside the Musee d’Orsay, listening to the click and swish of the street performers’ roller skates,  it sadly dawned on me that I would once again miss the inside of the museum.  No wandering through the majestic corridors or getting lost in the muted colors of Monet, Manet, Degas or Renoir.

Instead, just a few yards away from the museum entrance, I was sitting on grotty steps, watching a pair of street performers, one testing the limits of roller skates and the other whose gig was to mock innocent passersby.  My kids were reduced to falling over in giggles every time an unsuspecting tourist was victimized.  It was entertaining, but I couldn’t deny the call of the French Impressionists.  I was counting down until closing time.  Thirty eight minutes left.  How had inertia anchored me here, in Paris of all places?

You see, I had never liked Paris.  The only reason I came this time was out of a sense of duty.  My husband loved Paris, and since he couldn’t join us on this part of the trip, I felt compelled to include Paris in our summer itinerary.  It was a nod in his direction, a feeble recognition of what he had done to make this trip possible.  After we had traveled together for the past month in Spain and Morocco, he flew home, and the kids and I headed off to get a taste of the rest of Europe, wandering through five weeks of Germany, France, Italy, and Austria.  My husband acted as our ‘stateside support ,’ researching hotels, making reservations, and paying the bills, of course.

So it was just the kids and me.  And Paris.  Which I hated. I hated the rainy weather, the expensive food, and the unfriendly shopkeepers.   And I hated the promise of Paris.  The romance.  The lure of the Eiffel Tower.   This was my fourth trip to Paris, and I again swore it would be my last.

My kids with crepes in Paris

The first time I was in Paris, I was in high school.  It was the spring break language trip.  The weather was chilly, and my experience couldn’t compare to that of my Spanish-studying classmates who were spending a fabulous time on the sultry Iberian Peninsula.  Not yet 21 and under the constant scrutiny of chaperones, I and my classmates couldn’t even find much pleasure in the realization that wine was, in fact, cheaper than Coke.  And it was more than just the Coke that seemed expensive on a babysitter’s budget.  Even though it was the 90s, and the Euro had not yet taken over, I probably only had a few hundred bucks for the week.  That could last one meal in a metropolitan city like Paris and wouldn’t get me very far in the much anticipated French boutiques.  Even kitschy souvenir shopping, which suite my budget better, was a lackluster experience.  The unaccommodating shopkeepers rebutted my attempts at speaking diligently practiced high school French.  Either I received a blank stare or a curt, tight-lipped, “Excuse me?” in perfect English.

My second foray among the Parisians was definitely a notch up.  It was a 21-day, whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother and sister.  I could enjoy the cheap wine, had a bit more money to shop, and relaxed at many mediocre pre-arranged meals.  But my memories are vague.  It was a quick trip.  Eiffel Tower, Monaco Casinos, Coliseum, Venice Canals, the Alps, Schoenborn Palace, Goldenes Dachl, Neuschwanstein Castle. . .just like the movie.

I haven’t thought of my third trip to Paris in years.  I guess I’ve blocked it out.  That time, I was in my final semester of college, doing my student teaching at an English-speaking school in Germany.  A group of us drove to Paris for the weekend.  Imagine that.  Driving to Paris for the weekend. I do remember being distinctly impressed with the compactness and ease of travel afforded to the Europeans. But I was once again not impressed with Paris. This time, I was too hung up on love.  As I stood on the precipice of Place du Trocadero, with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower at night, I was with a man with whom I was less than in love.  As I tried to force a meager enthusiasm for my date, I vowed never to return to Paris without genuine love.  I can’t remember the details, but there were probably a few forced kisses.  After all, we were in Paris.  It was our last date.

My daughter boat pushing in Paris

But this trip was different.  Finances and weather weren’t going to put a damper on this journey.  I was ready to take on Paris.  I was armed with a rain coat, a few umbrellas, and weather proof shoes.  I had plenty of cash and credit.   Of course, with two kids, I was not remotely interested in sitting through a five-course meal for three hours or shopping in expensive boutiques, but I could comfortably order a meal in a restaurant for the three of us and buy as many Eiffel Tower key rings as we could carry.

The rudeness of Paris didn’t faze me this time either.  Paris is just another big city.  I don’t think Parisians are particularly more discourteous than those residing in other big cities of the world.  Sure, there’s a bit more snobbery in Paris.  Though, at this point in my life, after having crossed the globe a few times, I would give a bit more leeway for Parisian snobbery.  It is an impressive city.  I guess I also have a tougher skin.  Curtness doesn’t bother me as much anymore.   I myself have become more practiced at stone cold stares.  I was an eighth grade school teacher, have been married for thirteen years, and have a ten and an eight year old. Sarcasm, silent stares, and snooty looks are just a few of the nasty tricks that I’ve acquired.  I can raise an eyebrow with a snide lip as good as any Parisian.

And finally, love was no longer an issue.  I had traded in my glass slippers for Saucony running shoes, with an occasional high-heeled black leather boot slipped on for fun.  Stability, fidelity, and the rewards for working at love were now my priorities.  It’s not that my life had become devoid of romance, but that it no longer needed the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower.  A simple Saturday morning when the kids slept past 6:30 and we had a few more minutes together would kindle a romantic trajectory that would last through waffles, soccer, an afternoon birthday party and grilled burgers, until the kids were tucked in for the night. At that point, Eiffel Tower or not,  we may or may not find ourselves too tired to go on.

So that’s where I found myself in Paris for the fourth time.  My conditions were different, but in my estimation, the city hadn’t changed.  Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, and of course, the Louvre.

We had spent a  morning in the Louvre.  It was a brief visit.  We rented the museum guides, walked around for a few hours, and ended up in the Louvre café.  I knew the next five weeks would be full of museums, cathedrals, palaces, and long walks.  Spending only four hours in the Louve felt like a travesty to me, but the goal of the trip wasn’t to present a concise history of Eastern and Western civilization gleaned from a museum.  Instead, it was merely to launch the kids on a life of travel.  Two days or even one full day in the Louvre is certainly not the most effective way to infect them with the travel bug.

We walked out of the museum and found ourselves in the Tuileries Gardens.  Little did I know that this path would set the tone for the rest of our summer.

Slinging wet pea stones in their wake, both children raced down the garden path to the man with the toy boat cart. They begged for a boat. Exhausted, I collapsed on a chair by the concrete pool.   I knew there was a lot more of Paris to see over the next five days, and I suppressed the nagging guilt I felt about ‘giving up’ for the afternoon.

It was two Euros to rent a boat for an hour.  The children were given a pole and a boat with a sail.  The French-speaking boat peddler, a strange but satisfyingly friendly cross between a gentle grandfather and a homeless man, was accommodating, letting the children choose their boat, suggesting the fastest boats among his collection, and helping them with their first launch.

At that moment, although I wanted to keep hating Paris, I felt my grip loosening.  This distaste had taken years to cultivate.  I wouldn’t even deign a meal in a French restaurant back home if I could avoid it.  It was simply a principal to me now:  a snobbery about being snobby.

But this moment challenged every bit of Paris that I found detestable.  It was friendly, accommodating, and an undeniably good deal.  I had more than two content children, a reclining chair by the fountain, and a spectacular view in every direction.  As I sat there for the afternoon, sometimes lost in my thoughts and much of the time thinking nothing at all, I realized I had never let myself completely go in Paris.  I had posed for pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, bartered for the prerequisite Eiffel Tower key rings, and had hung on to a Sorbonne University t-shirt, buried somewhere in my bottom drawer at home.  But I had never released my Type A American intensity to become a part of the scenery.

As I melted into the background of tourists photos, I began to see how unimaginably beautiful the city was.  How had I missed this on my visits to Paris?  I started to look around, to notice the architecture.  I absorbed the dampness of the gardens, imbued with the graceful sculptures and aged trees that have literally seen history unfold.   And as I sat there, I even began to dismiss the quirky ways of the Parisians, and appreciate the annoyance of the pandering demanded by tourists.

Of course, it did rain for a few minutes that afternoon, but somehow it didn’t matter.  The wind and brief moments of pelting rain made the boating all that much more exciting.

I realized that traveling with children affords a certain amount of freedom.  Freedom to sit and watch the street performers instead of wandering through high-ceilinged galleries.  Freedom to eat crepes for lunch.  Freedom to skip the afternoon at the Louvre with the great masters, and instead, become one of the scenes of the great masters:  Boy Pushing Boat at Fountain.

As I sat there, I also realized I had never really thought of the goal of our trip. After all, what goal do you need when you’ll be spending the summer in Europe?  Pictures of us for the Christmas card in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canal, and at the top of the Alps?   But maybe it was about more.  As I watched tourists take photos of children, my children, push-boating in the fountain, maybe this trip was destined to be one where we didn’t see everything, but we instead became a part of everything.

I never did make it into the Musee d’Orsay that afternoon, but I did make the conscious choice to become a part of every place we visited.  No check lists, ‘top ten’ lists, or ‘must see’ sights.

Instead, we visited the same little pizza shop in Rome almost every afternoon and got to know the owner’s name and all about his family.  Each kid had their favorite stool and type of pizza.

My son drawing in Venice

We went hiking in the Alps with a German family that my daughter had befriended on the train, spending the next two days sharing meals, Prosseco, and the common struggles of raising kids, balancing work and family, and the German perspective on the dilemma in financial markets.

We fed the pigeons at Notre Dame, scattering our leftover baguette from lunch. We never made it to the top of the bell tower in Notre Dame, but no one complained about missing it.  They did complain when we ran out of bread, and then the birds wouldn’t eat the gummy candy they foisted on them.

I did my share of eating too—from croissants to gelato.  I even ate brats and drank beer at a playground in Kaiserslautern, and at every other playground I found after that day that served them.

There were poignant moments, too.  Things came up that I wouldn’t have necessarily brought up with my kids.  At the bus stop for the Appian Way, we talked with a Roman who was fiercely racist, protecting his job and lifestyle from North African immigrants.  The children listened quietly, and after we parted from him, we spent many hours talking about racism, prejudice, jobs, and country, as we walked from one catacomb to the next.

In Venice, we passed an afternoon with a researcher who was working on an international project on chickens.  She was studying how interbreeding chickens actually made them more resistant to disease, more attractive, and provided a lower mortality rate.  The children didn’t miss connecting her research to our Appian Way talks about racism and prejudice.

Of course, I could go on.  There were so many moments of connections.  But this year, although our Christmas card did contain the requisite posed picture in front of a recognized site, it also showed a snapshot of my daughter sketching by the canals of Venice and my son pushing his boat with a pole, raggedy boat-man in the background.  I’m not in the photo of course, but I can see my empty green chair, reclining by the fountain pool, where I was sitting when I became a part of the background of Paris.


Sex and Chocolate: Why Variety and Frequency Really Do Matter

Posted by Susannah on Jan 5, 2012 in Men, Relationships

Enjoying one of many varieties of the "sweet stuff"

Here’s what woke me up in the middle of the night a few days ago.  Call it a dream, or a maybe a vision.  Heck, some men out there might go so far as to think it’s a message from above for all women.

Here’s how the tale unfolded:  Dressed in way too much tulle, I was standing at the altar, beaming at my husband-to-be.  Though the rest of the details were a bit fuzzy, the wrinkles, sagging, and cellulite which have encroached on my body over the past 13 years were all magically erased.  As I stood there radiating with every promise of the perfect life to come, I naively repeated the traditional wedding vows.  The strange thing was that this time, my wedding vows were a little different than I remembered from the first go-round.  There was a line inserted which went something like this: “And I promise to love, cherish, and eat only Hershey’s original chocolate bars for as long as we both shall live.”

Seemed odd.  Promising to devote myself to only one type of chocolate?  A bit restrictive perhaps?

It quickly dawned on me that with such vows, the only chocolate I’d be eating for the rest of my married life would be rectangular bars stamped with “Hershey’s.”  This strange vow dictated that no Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, or even a Hershey’s Kiss would pass my lips for the rest of my married days if I was to remain faithful to my husband.  And it went without saying that I’d have to abstain from my quest for the perfect square of dark chocolate.  No other brand or type of chocolate forever and ever, Amen.

That brief foray into an imaginary world was a bit disturbing to me.  I like chocolate.  I like different kinds of chocolate.  I experience a physiological response when I see chocolate.  My mouth waters when I smell warm chocolate chip cookies.  My eyes lustfully graze over the offerings of chocolate at the check-out, particularly at the better grocery stores which source a diverse selection of quality bars.   I even look forward to savoring a square of dark chocolate every morning.  No offense to Hershey’s, but the thought that I would be restricted to only a mediocre chocolate bar for the rest of my life seemed like quite a sacrifice.

Maybe I have a problem.  Then again, maybe at some level, it’s human nature to feel like that.

And now, I’ll take this opportunity to suggest that perhaps women’s connection to chocolate can provide a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side of the bed.  Albeit a weak analogy, I think there’s a little bit in here for all of us women.

Essentially, what your husband said when he stood at that altar was that he was going to eat only Hershey’s Bars for the rest of his life.  Perhaps you consider yourself more like a sassy Snickers bar or a sophisticated hand-painted artisan chocolate.  Either way, you get the point.  Eating only one type of candy for the rest of one’s life would get kind of monotonous.  Especially when he really likes chocolate and there’s a lot of chocolate out there.  Now whether or not he’d even have the chance to taste all that chocolate out there is another blog post altogether.  But back to the chocolate analogy– in some cases, adding to the depressing situation would be a strict frequency limitation: begrudging tastes only once or twice a month.

I’m no expert on men, but I imagine it’s not always easy for them to remain faithful.  It’s no secret that just like it’s more common for women to have eating disorders/body image distortion/weight gain, many men struggle with sexual issues at varying levels.  Even if he doesn’t act on his desires, lust is there nagging in his mind.  Just look at the wealthy and powerful.  Those men can write their own ticket in this department.  And look at what a mess they make.  Men who have remained faithful are akin to a woman who hasn’t gained an extra 15 pounds over her last 10 years of wedded bliss (eating too much chocolate, no doubt).  Therefore, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a woman’s food issues could be akin to a man’s sex drive.  From a survival of the species angle, this makes sense.  In most species, males procreate, sometimes with multiple females, while females are responsible for care and feeding of the young.  Sex for men.  Food for women.  Maybe we’re just not as evolved as we think we are.

Momentum, monogamy, and creativity are tough to keep up.  I’ve failed miserably at all of these at different points in my marriage. There are days that I don’t feel creative.  There are nights that I watch the elapsing clock in the wee small hours of the morning, wondering if we’ve got what it takes to keep going.  (Of course, starting those mornings with a good piece of dark chocolate does make it all seem a little easier.)

Finally, here’s a tricky one to put out there.

We have to put out a little more.  We’re all they’ve got.

You’re his Hershey’s bar.  And just like I eat chocolate on a pretty regular basis, he’d probably be glad for a bit more action.  An occasional reluctant nod in his direction is not enough.

I know—he doesn’t deserve it.  You’re annoyed that he made a snarky comment when you asked him to put his dirty socks in the basket, totally messed up your last anniversary and apologized only after you pitched a fit, worked late all week and then went to poker night, didn’t help put the kids to bed or bring the trash cans in.  And then when he did unload the dishwasher that one time, he expected his reward should be you on your knees thanking him.  There’s never a lack of legitimate reasons to say no.  And there are lots of blogs about men behaving badly and needing denial discipline.  Sometimes it’s the only behavior modification tool we have.  And it goes without saying that a woman should never put herself in a compromising situation where she’s disrespected, abused, or used.  But I’m not talking about dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships or about exhausted women who work full-time with three children under the age of four.

For the rest of us in stable, healthy relationships, I’m merely putting it out there that instead of examining sex as a pawn, a means of manipulation, or a punishment, realize we’re all in this together.

Maybe I’ve taken this whole analogy a bit too far, but it comes down to this: Men love sex.  Women love chocolate (or food in general).  Both are arguably biological drives.  I’m not suggesting that we all need to have sex on a trampoline (that actually came up in the conversation at about 11:30 p.m. one girls’ night with a few too many French Martinis).  And as it goes with chocolate, we don’t always need to be having peak culinary experiences.  (Though I’d never be one to rule out edible body chocolate if the opportunity arose).

My point is merely that we may all have a bit more in common than we realize.  Monotony and denial are our enemies.

Finally, if you made a terrible mistake and made your faithful promises to chocolate dipped sweet and sour gummy worms, Butterfingers, or those waxy white chocolate bunnies you can pick up for a dollar around Easter, my musings are null and void.  I’m so sorry.   It’ll take more than some high quality chocolate every day to solve your problems.

And to my single sisters—let this be a lesson to choose your candy wisely.  Consider an upfront, solid version with few artificial colors or flavors.   Look for honest packaging with clear labels so you know what you’re  getting.   Most importantly, make sure your candy is sourced in a way that aligns with your values and moral code and that it can adapt to a multitude of combinations, while remaining classic and steadfast for a lifetime.


How I found Room in my Life for his ‘Model-Upgrade’ Affair

Posted by Susannah on Dec 15, 2011 in Men, Relationships

To be a bit catty, I’m often shocked at who people pick as their lovers. You do have to wonder why someone like Peter Cook would cheat on Christie Brinkley. What were you thinking, Pete? You had the woman that every man (and, truth be told, quite a handful of woman) would put on the top of their ‘list.’ How is it that stars who are married to super models have affairs with frumpy women?

And let’s not discriminate here–women are just as guilty.  On our forays into the cheating hearts club, it’s not unusual for us to pick tubby men with receding hairlines.  They’re nice guys, of course, but lack a little in the looks department.

The reality is that the idea of the object of one’s lust always being a visual ‘model-upgrade’ is a deeply held myth, perpetuated by the big screen.  In Hollywood, the ‘other woman,’ whether prostitute, prom queen, or housewife, is always shamelessly hot.  But we all know in real life, we lie in bed at night with our partner, pondering a friend’s recent marriage demise, and admit to the darkness, “I can’t believe he wrecked his marriage to fool around with her.

Obviously there’s more than physical appearance that motivates a philanderer.  Neglect, loss of a dream, being locked in an emotional wasteland, lack of appreciation….  Everyone can claim his or her own fill-in-the-blank rationale.  But since volumes have been written examining these less-than-superficial reasons, I’ll revel in the shallow red-light.  If you’re going to have an affair, don’t go for a fixer-upper when choosing a lover.

And this is where my story begins its twisted cord.  The wandering heart in my household took my advice and went for a ‘model upgrade.’

In my case, it was simply that unmet needs and building tensions undermined what was a previously pleasurable shared experience.  I remember how it used to be when my husband and I spent hours doing things together. Some of my fondest memories center around the adventures and misadventures of our road trips: reading West with the Night on a road trip to Maine, waking before dawn to skirt the I-95 traffic to Florida, a New Years’ trip to Asheville to camp in a snowstorm.

I think it’s the hours traveling together that have always been particularly special to me. I’d sit in the passenger seat, map on my lap, camera in hand, bag of snacks at my feet, and love in my heart. My number one job was to navigate, though I catered, photographed, and helped my husband to stay awake on those long, late night drives. I thought I was an all-around chipper travel companion, commenting on the scenery, anticipating our next stop, and reading informative quips from the travel book.

But as the years passed, things began to deteriorate. I joke that we have our best fights in the car, but it’s not always so funny. Though we also have our deepest talks in the car, we seem to have our most intense arguments, too, often tipped off by my navigational skills (or lack thereof). Although I’d like to blame him for his impatience or pin ‘fear of making mistakes’ on his psyche, I know that I have a severe deficiency in ‘map reading.’

It starts out simply. He asks me something like, “Is this our exit?”

I answer, “I think so.”

He retorts, “Are you sure?”

I start to panic, as we have a few hundred feet left, and say “Yeah, take it, on the right. Take it. I think that’s it. Just take it.”

He says, “What? You ‘think.’ What exit number were we supposed to get off on?”

The exit passes; we miss it. I tell him he doesn’t listen to me. I confirm that it was the correct exit. He says I didn’t seem like I was sure. Then I spiral down to tangentially pinning every emotion, insecurity, and quibble we’ve ever had in our marriage to this one interchange. For the next hour, I go on and on and end in a hyperventilating mess, forcing me to completely re-do my make-up before we knock on the door of his roommate from school that we’ve been driving in the car for seven hours to see.

Perhaps I have conjured up a bit of sympathy for him at this point.  No wonder he looked other places to get his needs met.  Who wouldn’t–married to a catastrophizing woman like me.  I would drive anyone crazy.   I will be the first to admit that we all, including me, have space for improvement.  Nonetheless, like any wife will say, I was still shocked to find him in the company of another.

And here continues the sad tale of how it all crumbled in my hands.  How he showed complete disregard for my feelings, practically flaunting her in my face.  It was as if he wanted to get caught. As I came out to the car one day, I could see her silhouette through the front windshield. She was trim and, well, obviously well-endowed. Not being one to go down without a fight, I confronted the situation.

I was immediately struck by how sexy her voice was. Even in an awkward situation such as this, she maintained a steady, confident voice. It was as if she was completely unthreatened by me, knowing she had nothing to prove. Her quiet calm was in great contrast to my escalating panic.

My husband said his friend Peter had a woman like her that spoke to him in French. I merely raised my eyebrow at this. As if Peter’s behavior would excuse my husband’s cheating heart.

After a snarky comment, I went back into the house, making sure the front door slammed. I felt old, worn out, and replaced. As you can imagine, lots of soul searching occurred.  As time went on though, I began to think about the situation in a more level-headed manner. I like to think of myself as a relatively progressive woman and recognize that I am not able to meet all of my husband’s needs. Though you may not agree with me, I resigned my initial fury and told him that there may be room for all of us in this marriage.

Blame it on the prevalence of shows like Big Love, but I was ready to find space for this other woman (and her sultry voice) in our lives. I soon could see why he had such an attraction to her. She was confident without being bossy.  She never cowered to a mumble when being challenged.  And she maintained a rare quality in a woman:  even when it was obvious that no one was taking her advice, she  refrained from escalating her tone to a painfully squeaky pitch, as she repeated herself for the third time.   She was an endless font of patient information.

And even better, she is amazingly low-maintenance.  Not only is she willing to hang on the windshield for hours with a mere suction cup, but she considerately displays a polite warning if she’s running low on energy.  Now how’s that for an unusual quality in a woman?

Now she goes with us everywhere.  Whether we’re fearlessly flying down Route 66 or meandering through narrow streets in Arcos de la Frontera in Spain, we always include her in our plans.  And our marriage is actually better for having her as a part of it.  Although we struggle in many ways to keep technology from overwhelming our lives—too much TV, texting at the dinner table, cell phone calls on date night—we’ve found that relieving me of my navigational duties has freed us to find more joy in the journey.  I can’t meet all of my husband’s needs, as it would be foolhardy to expect him to meet all of mine. Where we fall short, we can always depend on friends, a bit of wine, and a ‘model up-grade’ now and again.

And I’m not threatened in the least by her trim figure or confident voice.

After all, she sleeps in the glovebox.  I’ve still got the bed….


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