Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dark Harbor: Slashed Throats and Bullets

A break from the Paris blogs for a little bit...I've been feeling the love from Publishing Perspectives lately, an international online trade publication about the publishing world. My old friend Nathan Ward, who hails from my American Heritage days, has just published his first book and here is the Q & A I did with him. Dark Harbor tells the story of Mike Johnson, a scrappy reporter who told the story of union muckrakers, and the hit men who dumped them in the rivers, in a 24-part tabloid series that garnered him a Pulitzer Prize. Budd Schulburg eventually co-opted the sordid tale for "On the Waterfront"...

Monday, June 28, 2010


It's been hot and sunny in Paris for days, at times pushing close to 90 degrees. The heat hasn't kept us from walking around for hours, but we've had to be creative to stay comfortable. Once we found a stately fountain and peeled our shoes off to get our feet wet. We hadn't yet realized how close we were to the air conditioned Pompidou Center around the corner... ready to enter "Dreamlands", a gorgeous exhibit open through August 9th.

This show took tons of things I've been long attracted to (amusement parks, photography, talking cardboard robots) and pulled a common thread out of all of them to create a theme of juxtaposition run amok, for better or worse, but mostly for better. It began with one of my favorite places on earth, Coney Island, and the creation of its first amusement park "Dreamland." So what do Coney Island, Disney world, the Truman Show, Dubai, and every World Expo have in common? This exhibit showed us that these have been common points for the obsession we have with planting ourselves in self-created, alternate environments. We're constantly placing ourselves, for amusement, into imagined worlds. Take Las Vegas: Paris in the desert, or New York City in the desert? Take your pick.

There are people across the decades who have devoted their entire careers to creating environments that have the ability to warp our perceptions about our own place in the world: in one you can be either Gulliver, or a Lillipution; in another, Alice walking through the looking glass, either pre- or post "Drink Me". The show is peppered with gorgeous photography of these odysseys, insanely beautiful in their own right. I was especially moved by a series of photographs of places that are named for another place, that have, in their essence, no resemblance to the place for which it's named (a vast expanse of wildflowers in Paris, Texas, for example).

The show had the extra benefit for me personally of ending on a dreamy note. It's held in the 6th floor of the Pompidou, and when you exit it, you're greeted by the giant clear walking corridor tubes that wrap themselves around the outside of the building, offering up extreme views of the otherworldly (to me) city below.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Arrived in Paris

We arrived in Paris on June 20, and I've been too busy getting acclimated, seeing friends, and walking for 10 hours a day to even think about blogging. This morning I woke up, and for the first time, felt this let down, like I really need to write and chill out and do nothing for a couple of days. The last thing I want is for this blog to seem like an annoying slide show of my trip, where I traipse you around one sight from the next, and assume that you'll be interested. That said, if I were diligently keeping a scrapbook, I'd be gluing in ticket stubs from the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou, the Bayeux Tapestries up in Normandy, and every Gothic cathedral in between.

The strongest impression on me about the neighborhood where we're staying, Monmartre, is the height of the hills. My first morning here, I woke up jet lagged and headed out to climb to the top. This is always my favorite time of day; I love watching a city wake up slowly. Shopkeepers were cleaning the sidewalks and water was gushing down the gutters of the windy cobblestone streets. After climbing a few hundred stairs, all tolled, I found myself inside of the Sacre Coeur basilica, one of about five people sitting in the pews. Outside, the view across Paris was so pretty that I got weepy, but I always cry when I'm jet lagged. When I was in Rome a decade ago, I cried in front of the Pieta, and at a restaurant eating chocolate truffles, and Jim hasn't let me forget it (probably because I also fell asleep sitting up in front of the truffles).

The apartment we've swapped for is wonderful. It's smaller than our own (described by our swappers as a 50 meter one bedroom), which means less to clean at the end. It's big on charm: there are wooden floors and French windows with wrought iron gates and geraniums, and a perfectly serviceable kitchen that has already seen it's share of pastry, cheese and wine visitors. The aesthetic of the people who live here is very similar to my own. Sara has a gift for taking old objects and creating shadow box dioramas with them, which has given me ideas of how to corral my own incomprehensible collection of nostalgic bits and pieces. One of the unexpected gifts this place has given to me is it's simplicity; the fact that they're childless means there's none of the extra kid crap swarming about creating chaos everywhere I step, constantly. In truth, Jamie's happy with a pile of paper and markers since he's moved into the "constantly drawing Super Heroes" phase of his boyhood.

I have two mental adjustments to make about being here: one is that we're here for six weeks, so I don't need to run around seeing everything there is to see in a week, which would be exhausting and futile. The second is that I'm traveling with a 7 year old boy, which is similar to traveling with a giant puppy. He needs to be fed and watered and have many chances to run and play every day. This has created a daily barometer for me, and instilled a schedule of sorts where there is none. The other major adjustment? That it stays light until roughly 11 pm, but that's another story...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Five days and counting

This Saturday, we will hand keys to our apartment over to two French strangers, Sara and Elliot. We'll take their keys, and head off to JFK International, where we'll hop on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, then to Paris, then make our way to Monmartre, which we'll call home for six weeks. I haven't ever been out of New York for six weeks in the seventeen years I've lived here, and while I love Paris, I think it's a bit odd that I've gone and picked another major city to prop myself up against for my big New York City breakaway.

That said, there are side trips planned. We've booked our TGV high speed tickets to Marseilles, and rented a car (an automatic) to head to Normandy where we'll explore the D-Day beaches and check out the Halley's comet embroidered on the Bayeux tapestries. We've bought our Ryanair tickets to Rome, where we'll stay with my parents for two nights in Anzio before gathering them up to head to Rome's Trastevere neighborhood for another couple of nights. After that, I'm not sure what we'll do. Catch trains up the coast, stop off in Genoa, and snake our way through some Alps and head back to Paris again? Or buy some airplane tickets back to Paris from some northern Italian point, and chill out for the last 10 days or so?

Six weeks sounds like forever, but I know it will fly. I'm proud that this started as a little seed of a wild idea and has grown to fruition-- now I need to disperse this energy into other things I'd like to see happen in our lives.

This trip feels like a celebration of sorts for me; Jamie's just turned seven, and is moving from a fairly restrictive 12-person special ed classroom setting to full-inclusion with his own Assistant Teacher next year. I'm feeling inspired by his progress, enough so to embark on this kind of trip. He's always traveled well. He loves looking out the window of trains and cars, and in a way, perhaps having an only child has made this scope of a trip easier for us, and him, to handle. Wherever we land, we're a little threesome, and this brings a sense of home anywhere. I'll bring a few fidget toys, plenty of art supplies, and sugar free gum to prepare for his hard times so he has something to ground him if he gets overstimulated. I'll keep museum trips to a minimum. I've been reading up on Parisian playgrounds, and this time around I'll let that take center stage. A pony ride here; a French puppet show there; a trip or two up the Eiffel Tower for good measure, with plenty of Nutella crepes along the way. What more does any kid need?

I look forward to our downtime there, and hope to blog a bit along the way. Bon soir!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

D-Day, June 6

When I moved to New York City in 1993, my first job in publishing was at American Heritage magazine. I lucked out and stayed for nearly five years: The friends I made have stuck for 17 and counting, and I learned a lot (at least some) about history. One of the facts that stuck is that June 6 is D-Day. To be at American Heritage during the fiftieth anniversary of World War II was logistically interesting, in my job as editorial assistant, because I got to open up all of the reader mail. Much of this was awful pitches from amateur writers who would have, say, a picture of themselves holding up a big fish they'd caught in their retirement on the top of their stationary. Much of the rest of the letters were from veterans.

Of the letters that we spoke about most and passed around, were the handful from the veterans who each believed their face was the one captured in the most famous Robert Capa photograph of the bloodbath. The photo looks like a pencil drawing; smudges of smoke rises from the ocean and weaves between the sinking U-boats. Linear objects could be oars, or guns.

I always thought he looked like my maternal Granddad, a WWII vet who lied about his age so that he could become a Marine at 17. While he didn't wash up on the beaches of Normandy, I still think of him today, because he landed in the South Pacific and was one of only two surviving members of his regiment at Guadalcanal (I learned this just last week from my mom). He died in 1994, but I still think of him and miss him all of the time. In fact, there's a black and white photograph of him and my Grandmother hanging framed on my living room wall, taken during happier times. She's wearing dark red lipstick and her nails are perfectly manicured. He's wearing his uniform. They're sitting in a booth with wacky-retro wallpaper behind their heads, but you can tell that it's a swanky joint. It's the time of their lives.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Happy Birthday, sweet Jamie

June 2nd marks my 7th year of becoming a mom. This past year, motherhood didn't come by as naturally to me as it has felt in the past. I could also phrase this in another way: As Jamie becomes more independent, I have struggled to adapt and understand how best to guide him and to respond to him. I write for parenting magazines and websites, and have used this gig as a way to conduct research with "parenting experts" whenever I become inspired by my own self-perceived parental downfalls. Maybe I've said No too much; yelled too much; been too moody, too distant; too affectionate and smothering; lately, even embarrassing, which is new. What I've also been though, is There. There for morning bus pick ups and afternoon drop offs. There for karate, for the playground, for family gatherings, for bedtime, for sickness and for health. Writing from home and teaching one day a week has afforded me the luxury of spending more time than I ever have with my son (after getting laid off from CosmoGirl magazine when it folded in October of 2008).

Being at home in the afternoons isn't the parental fantasy I thought it would be, back when I was unable to do so because I was working in an office. It turns out, my son comes home tired and cranky after being "on" for seven hours straight, and homework together has been a train wreck of frustration. Jamie is in a special needs program, and since he was three years old I've worn the hat of Advocate as well as Mother (here's an essay about his entrance into the Special Needs world). When I was in an office, my Advocacy was more delegated. I took care of the onslaught of evaluation appointments, school visits, the medical landscape and legal paperwork. But the after school hours were cordoned off to others. Babysitters were chosen very carefully (Could they handle his sensory needs on a playground, or walking down the street? Sounds easy, right? Try it in New York City with a 4 or 5 year old with sensory issues). Turns out, they worked their tails off. I always knew it, but taking over the bulk of the face-to-face parenting hours in this New Economy of ours has been illuminating. On the hard days, fidget toys and sugar free gum have been my personal saviors. The fidget toys allow me to do things like Run the Odd Errand; if you're in a store, he'll pull on these rubber creations instead of touch everything in sight. Likewise, on the street, sugar free gum gets him in a rhythm of movement whereby I don't need to pull him off of every wall or fire hydrant. I joke to myself that walking him is like walking a golden retriever puppy, and he's every bit as affectionate as one, which also requires peeling him from hugging acquaintances till they practically turn blue in the face (another symptom of his sensory issues).

I look at Jamie's Jack-O-Lantern smile that's emerged only in the last two weeks, and at times I see someone I barely recognize. He's growing faster than we can keep up with clothing-wise, and his features are thinning out slightly as he becomes ganglier. Once in awhile though, like tonight, he'll turn his head, and in a certain angle I see a little bit of baby fat left and he could be 4 or 5-- or 6. These fleeting visions of my little guy are fading, but in his place is this interesting big kid with his own ideas and preferences and routines, most different than mine. Giving him the structure he craves and needs has been an unexpected challenge for someone who's spent the bulk of my life living fairly spontaneously. This year has been hard. I see my faults more clearly than I ever have in my adult life, and all I can say is I'm working on them; it's really he who's teaching me day in day out. Happy birthday, sweet Jamie.