Friday, October 30, 2009

Potty, schmotty

I know I said I wouldn't share any potty training stories, but this one is both too good to skip and passes the I-wouldn't-hesitate-telling-it-to-a-potential-daughter-in-law test.

We are currently in the constant-polling phase of potty training. I propose, and often le Petit is willing to go--it still hasn't lost its novelty--but the idea doesn't occur to him on his own. So I ask and sometimes he agrees, if he isn't already doing something he finds more interesting than sitting on a blue plastic ducky seat perched on the "big potty," meditating on bodily functions and waiting, listening to maman's encouragement while singing songs and playing with the handle of the toilet plunger.

Here's an extract from a recent conversation:

"Hey, Little Guy, would you like to go pee on the potty?"

His refusal was clear: "Ca va pas, non!"

That was a very fluent and very français way of telling me to go, err, flush.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two

This morning we looked out over the Seine from between the green metal bars of a bridge's sidewalk. I crouched beside the stroller and counted out loud the trains that sped across a nearby railroad bridge, and le Petit laughed with joy each time one disappeared behind the buildings on the far bank. I pointed out the barges that passed below us.

"Trains and trucks and boats all at once. And look, there's a crane!" I felt like a hero, the coolest mom in the world, even as passersby stared as they stepped around us.

I reminded myself to write down how much I love age two.

When le Petit brings me a book and tugs me over to the couch; when I hear him shouting with joy "C'est maman!" behind the door when I arrive home from work; when I listen to him repeating stories and songs in his crib just after he wakes up, I'm certain: there's no better age than age two.

Then there are the objects strewn on the floor. The food dumped from the high chair, then eaten off the floor before I can manage to sweep it up. The protests at mealtime, at bathtime, at potty time, when five minutes later he's perfectly happy and protesting the next transition. Drinking glasses are dumped with precision on the floor the second I'm not looking. Bathwater is gulped down in the instant I turn my head. There are crashes and bumps and screams of refusal from seven or eight in the morning to around nine-thirty at night, when (with luck) we close the door of his bedroom for the night. Some days there is two hours' respite at nap time. Some days, like today, there isn't.

This is as it should be. It is hard work, just hard enough that I'm always demanded just a little more than I think I can handle with grace. I'm lucky to have a husband who does more than his share, so the rare week like this one, when he's away on business for three nights, feels especially hard. But I got le Petit fed, bathed, and off to bed in good order three nights in a row, so I'm in good shape.

And it is so fun watching le Petit start to understand his world as a child instead of as a baby. After the bridge, we went to the park and watched two men with a cherry picker hang Christmas lights in the trees. Le Petit never would have been so interested before. He constantly comments on what he's seen (although to my great frustration, I don't always understand). We're still treated to monologues on our adventures on vacation this summer.

So here's to two: to screams of joy and dismay, to abandoned naps, to I-must-do-it-all-by-myself, to pulling the refrigerator door open with purpose and running off with the milk bottle, to counting new things, to singing new songs, and to tossing an entire bowl of lentils on the floor with gusto.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oracle

I'm in a much-anticipated Oracle Database Administrator training course this week. For those of you lucky enough to maintain a comfortable distance from the world of information technology, this probably doesn't mean much. I've discovered, however, that I am still enough of a computer geek to be loving it. The mysterious data-storing black box that I've interacted with for years as a software developer is suddenly revealing its secrets.

It is making me seriously consider changing career tracks to position myself as an intermediary between database expert and software architect. Developers rarely master the database side of things, which leads all too often to illogical designs, rotten performance, and security holes. I'd be half plumber and half Sherpa. And finally useful.

Anyway. My first goal is to pass the OCA certification, mostly to prove to my management that I'm serious about this. Bets are now open on whether I'll be Oracle certified before I'm licensed to drive in France.

[And here ends a random and relatively uninteresting brain dump, with my apologies.]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing your child's story

I've been posting a little less often lately, and it isn't for lack of things to write about. Le Petit has been doing more amazing and wonderful things than ever, and much of it is worthy of recording, at least in my biased opinion. But at the same time, as he grows and asserts his independence, I'm reminded that in some ways, his story isn't mine to tell.

When he was an infant and our identities were strangely and temporarily intermeshed, I had no trouble writing about him even in the first person. Now I worry what he'll think when he's teenager and he reclaims my narrative. I know there are some things I can't write about, like potty training, no matter how funny and noteworthy they seem to me right now. There are other things that I think will be OK -- his firsts, his language acquisition -- but how do I know?

I've stumbled across a lot of discussion about this issue around the web, I can't always remember where, but one of the most thoughtful posts I found here. That particular blogger writes eloquently about her family's two open adoptions, and our family story is less complex, with fewer actors, but some her concerns are mine. I too try to assume that everyone I write about will some day read what I've written. Including le Petit. Especially le Petit.

What I want him to take away from my blog when he reads it all those years in the future is that I felt excited and privileged to watch as he grew, learned about the world, and discovered the amazing person he is. It sounds pretty cheesy typed like that, but I'm not sure how else to say it. This blog is the diary of his biggest fan.

What I don't want him to feel is that I packaged his childhood for mass consumption, that I took the best bits and marketed them to an anonymous Internet audience. But I guess I'm doing that, too. After all, I write posts to be funny, or to resonate with other moms, and I relish the comments and feedback I get.

I'm walking a fine line, and as le Petit gets older, I'll have to make even more of an effort to err on the side of keeping my mouth shut. Alas, this is not something that comes naturally to me, either in text or in 'real life.' I need to remember to keep this blog about me. I write for myself. I write about le Petit as I'd want someone to write about me. Though perhaps it's a good thing there were no blogs around in 1976.

I know many of my readers are blogging mothers, too, or spend time reading other moms' blogs. What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Name that tune

My husband has taught le Petit to sing Céline Dion. Now during bath time he belts out "All By Myself" with all his heart and soul. He does it in perfect imitation of my husband, off-tune, with a heavy French accent and a few extra syllables missing in the original recording. It sounds something like "All-eh by my self-eh, don-tuh wanna be, all-eh by my-SEEEEELLLLLF!"

I don't know whether either or both of them exaggerate the accent for effect, but the result is loud, passionate cacophony. I pointed out that it makes me want very much to be all by myself for a change.

"He was singing all day long today," the nanny reported, amused, when I came home from on Monday. "But not a kid's song. A chanson des grands."

"It must've been Céline Dion, no? 'All by myself...? His dad taught him that."

"No it was... I think it was Bob Marley."

Sure enough, le Petit also sings Bob Marley's Get Up, Stand Up. I started singing it to him when he was six months old and in the jack-in-the-box phase of pulling up to his feet in our laps whenever we'd hold his hands. Now I chuckle when I hear my gloriously headstrong, "no"-obsessed two-year-old singing "Stand up for your rights." It certainly wasn't meant to be an anthem to toddler angst, but it almost works.

Le Petit absorbs songs, stories and even randomly overheard phrases like a sponge right now. He listens to our singing and storytelling until he knows the words by heart, then repeats it all back much later according to his own logic and inspiration. He can repeat his favorite stories practically word for word without even looking at the pages. He hears sirens and sings "Au feu les pompiers." He sees a boat and sings "Maman les petits bateaux."

I'm often startled by the connections he makes. On Monday night, I called him to the table and put him in his high chair. "'Come and get it!' cries the cook at noon," he recited from Cowboy Small, a book we hadn't read together for a couple of weeks.

The two-year-old mind is a fascinating, beautiful thing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Strange moments in transatlantic romance

Recently, my husband was in a meeting at work with an American Big Boss who despite having spent considerable time in France as an ex-pat, wasn't altogether comfortable working in French. My husband happily agreed to make his presentation in English. He never misses an opportunity to show off his fluent and American slang-laden English, which he perfected over the eight years he lived in the States.

"No problem," he offered casually.

"It's easy for him," his direct boss added, "His wife is American."

Outed! My husband thought. So much for impressing anyone.

The Big Boss looked at him oddly.

"So you married an American, huh?" he asked, then paused and added cryptically, "Now why on Earth would you do that?"

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Belle

I've been thinking a lot about physical beauty. I spent much of my life feeling like an ugly duckling, never sure how to dress, how to wear my hair, how to put on make-up, how to feel comfortable in my own skin. When I hit adolescence I was readily cast as the awkward, pimply computer geek. Even after college, when my skin (mostly) cleared and I bought cute skirts and sexy sweaters to replace the long, ratty t-shirts and jeans I wore to the computer lab, an assumed identity as a unattractive nerd was anchored in my head.

Then I hit thirty and had a baby, and decided that it was high time to start loving my face and body as they were. After all, we'd been through so much together. Instead of lamenting the zits that still plagued me occasionally, I thought, "This body looks great, can you believe it once carried a baby?" or "Don't you feel great after that long run?" or "Who's that attractive stranger reflected in the shop window?"

Still, I often felt unsure of how I looked, and rarely felt good about how I dressed. So, since I live in Paris and Parisian women are masters of looking perfectly put together, I decided to observe and learn. At first I compared myself and constantly came up short. My morning commute in the Métro was a parade of designer coats, blouses and skirts as perfectly coordinated as they were pressed, and shoes! Beautiful, spotless, uncomfortable shoes. I couldn't imagine how they -- or their perfectly pedicured owners -- managed to survive a daily commute. I was ashamed of my own skuffed footwear, with low heels in case I missed the bus.

It was disheartening.

Then I realized that I only noticed the women whose style and good taste stood out. The vast majority of women I ran across were like me; dressing with more or less success depending on the day, sometimes accessorizing a bit too optimistically ("This necklace goes with this, right?"), sometimes defaulting to black when no colors seemed to go, and usually wearing sensible shoes.

I felt so much better.

Then I started to dissect what did work for women and why. Instead of saying to myself, "She's so much prettier than I could ever be," I said, "She's beautiful. Why?" Sometimes it was just the clothes, or a haircut that worked particularly well, or a fashion model's build, or the fine-grained skin of lucky genetics. Sometimes it was the bourgeois address: a lot of stylish, perfectly groomed women get on the number 2 line between Monceau and Etoile. Sometimes it was something harder to grasp: some women, the rarest kind, had nothing special about them at all that I could identify and yet they looked more beautiful than the rest.

What do I mean?

I've been observing carefully, and I have decided that the most beautiful woman at work is a colleague in her mid-fifties. I'm sure she has more wrinkles than the twenty-somethings who gather to giggle and smoke outside the front door. She's slim, but not willowy like the receptionist who wears tight-fitting black to show off her curves. Her clothes are not expensive, as far as I can tell; she wears no obvious fashion labels, no expensive shoes. And yet she lights up the room when she walks up to the coffee machine, and men half her age turn to stare.

She smiles warmly, directs her attention equally, asks how everyone is doing and listens with genuine interest. I observe her hair while she talks. I've finally decided that the color is probably not completely natural, but it suits her so perfectly, it glows just like she does. She dresses in bright colors, not so much coordinated as harmonized from head to toe. She wears just enough make-up in just the right shade.

She always seems happy. When she walks down the hallway, she stops to say hello and chat briefly with everyone, even to the people like me that she doesn't know well. I can be having a terrible day spent griping to any and all about some problem or another, it doesn't matter. When I talk to her I find I'm happy, too.

That's true beauty. I'm sure it can't all be learned, but if I can grasp just a bit of her secret, imagine!

I think I've learned a few things, and I'll share them. But, dear women readers, I'm sure I'm not alone. What do you do to feel beautiful inside and out, or as they say in French "être bien dans sa peau" -- feel comfortable in your skin, and confident?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Love à la française

While back home in Seattle, I found myself in the foreign travel section of the local Barnes and Noble, or maybe it was the relationship section. I can't remember. Wherever it was and however I got there, I found myself staring at the spine of a book with an irresistible title: French Women Don't Sleep Alone.

I was almost embarrassed to take it off the shelf -- I even made sure that le Petit wasn't watching from his stroller -- but I discreetly skimmed the blurb on the back, then cracked it open to take a quick look. The subject isn't exactly ground-breaking: much ink has been spilled, mostly in between glossy covers with curlicue letters in bleu, blanc et rouge, explaining the French to Americans, and particularly explaining how French women eat, cook, argue, shop, dress, think, and simply be so mysteriously French.

(I'll admit right now that I can't stand the genre. I think that writing as an ex-pat expert earns you credibility a bit too easily. After all, you only write from where you stand, which for most ex-pats is in a tiny urbanized slice of an incredibly diverse country. I should know. But if I ever get a book deal I'll eat my words.)

As I held the book in my hands like a hot potato, I chuckled to myself. The premise, as I determined in one very brief minute of flipping through the pages, was that French women are all highly successful in matters of the heart. They know the secrets of ensnaring a man, of fanning the flames of passion, of choosing when to leave and how. They can shrug philosophically when they discover they've been cheated on; they can face years of singlehood without tears because they do so on their own terms. That's what I gleaned, at any rate, but let me be clear: I didn't actually read more than a few sentences of the book, and this is by no means a review. What had me rolling my eyes and mentally preparing a blog post was that while one could argue that French women are slimmer, more fashionable, better cooks or choosier eaters than their American sisters, nothing in my experience proves they are happier or luckier in love.

See, I've cried with heartbroken girlfriends over bottles of wine in dimly-lit Parisian cafés. Dimly-lit Parisian cafés are among the best places to cry out heartbreak, and I think that is the only advantage lovelorn parisiennes have over lovelorn Americans.

So, is there anything at all mysterious about romance à la française?

Over lunch today I discussed the mechanics of American flirting with two female colleagues. I explained that in the US, flirting isn't the same game that it is in France. Over there, the stakes are high; you flirt when you mean it, and when you want a result. Flirting can be insulting or it can be welcome but it is rarely innocuous. Here in France, two-thirds of flirting is (mostly) innocent conversation, with no outcome sought, no assumptions made. You're dressed nicely, so the door is held open for you just a second longer than usual while eyes stray and you catch a smile. You feel happy, pretty, or you just bought a new dress, and a colleague notices and compliments you. No one pretends to forget that the world is divided into men and women: everyone remembers and revels in it.

I'll admit that I'm still oblivious to 90% of the flirting that takes place around me (or is even directed at me, I fear). So when three men absorbed in a conversation in French about the mechanics of flirting sat down next to me on the RER this afternoon, I'll admit I guiltily put down my book, closed my eyes, and feigned sleep... all the better to eavesdrop and learn.

I only caught a few small pieces, alas.

"...And [a girl's name], she's cute, isn't she?"

"...the new one on the third floor?"

"Yes, her!"

"Very cute."

(I think to myself that elle est très mignonne sounds so much classier than "she's so cute, man.")

"So I saw her at the coffee machine and..."

"...today?"

"...yes, and she looked over and I just caught her eye, and..."

(Some very interesting details were disclosed that I missed entirely.)

"...and there's [another girl] on the top floor and I think that she thinks..."

"...really? You think? But, [skeptically] how old is she?"

"20."

"Oh, well that explains it. If she's only 20, she just flirts with you because all the men in suits still look alike to her."

I kept my eyes closed and did my best to keep the corners of my mouth from curling into an incriminating smile. Soon the men changed subjects to talk of cell phones and I stopped listening so intently. As amusing and mostly innocent as the conversation was to overhear, I'm glad I'm not one of the women they were comparing -- and I'm glad I'm happily married and not playing the French flirting game to win. But maybe there is still some new material out there for some single ex-pat writer to fully research, after all.