20 September 2011

A Loss and Lament

In a few short weeks, the M-men and I will be heading to New York for our much anticipated, annual autumn visit. On the agenda is everything from university tours (they are never too young) to Trick or Treating (they are never too old.) And, of course, as any American expat returning ‘home’ will appreciate – shopping, shopping and more shopping – visits to stores that seem to say ‘welcome back to the USA - land of so many, many things.’

But sadly, this year will not be quite the same. I’m not talking about the depressing economy: we will do our part, as always, to give it a boost. (It’s amazing what you can justify when you compress several months’ worth of shopping into ten days.) But as I said, it won’t be the same. This year we might well find the land of so many, many things but books.

When I told my sons that the last Borders bookstore closed this past Sunday, there was a collective ‘NO-OH’ in full three-part harmony. A visit to Borders was special – even if later it entailed lugging back immensely heavy suitcases filled with latest edition hardcovers (waiting for paperbacks is not an expat luxury.) It was a price we gladly paid.

Borders did not go bankrupt for lack of M-support. When the boys were still little, back in the Magic Tree House/Berenstain Bear days, a store manager approached me. She saw us racking up piles upon piles of books and asked if I would like to open a corporate membership. When I replied I didn’t have a corporation, she said a family of readers was ‘close enough.’

We treasure our books. It runs in the family - my mother still has the books she brought to America when she emigrated from Greece some sixty years ago. She passed on her love to me and luckily I’ve passed it to my boys. Maybe partly it is because living in a foreign country; the boys realized English books were not always easy to come by. Sure there are libraries, but book lovers want to own the books they love, want to be able to pick them up and re-read them at any time. 

I also know the availability issue has since been solved with instant downloads on kindles, ipads, laptops – even phones.  But it isn’t the same – you can tell me what you like. They are nice supplements, not the real thing – in many ways better, in many others worse.  For example, when you see your kid with a book in hand, you have a pretty certain idea of what he or she is doing.  See a kid mesmerized by an ipad, well, the possibilities for various activities are infinite and not all likely to improve SAT scores.

Still, I fear the book lovers will soon have little choice. Borders is not the only bookstore chain, but its closing might well be indicative of others to come. Schools all over the world are trialing ipads to supplement (and eventually replace?) textbooks. It makes sense. But since when has loving meant being rational?

I will miss wandering through a bookstore – touching and feeling and opening the glossy covers, smelling the new book smell. I will miss the well-read salespeople who came up to my kids, saw what they were reading and said, ‘I see you like this series, have you tried this one?’ Their suggestions opened new worlds for my boys with books I might never have known to recommend. I will miss the carpeted kids’ corner, its reading nooks, beanbag chairs, the soft and wonderful colors. And I will miss seeing my kids sitting there, unable to wait to start reading one of the latest treasures they selected.

The books we have bought back to Monaco over the years take up a lot of space. They are well worn and dog-eared.  I always thought I would someday donate them to our school’s library. But I just might have to keep them. I want to know that my boys will have these treasures to share with their children someday. It is no longer something I take for granted.

12 September 2011


I did not expect to be so moved. Ten years to the day, September 11th 2001 – much of the world gathered to remember the events that impacted so many lives. In Monaco, the American expatriate community gathered too – so far from where the terror occurred so many years before. You sensed a tangible wanting to come together, to assemble, just like after the attack. On that day, wherever in the world you might have found yourself, there was a need to connect to what had happened. It was hard being away from home.

Yesterday’s anniversary was the same. The memorial service was attended not only by Americans, but also by people of multiple nationalities, reflective of this diverse and international village. It was held in the Cathedral, where I couldn’t help thinking of another woman who had left America behind, who became Princess Grace of Monaco and who now lies here forever in rest.

The Cathedral was packed. So many convened not just to commemorate the day, they came to share their where-were-you-when-it-happened. From New Yorkers such as myself, to foreigners who had once worked in New York, from people who knew people, to police officers who work here so proud of what the police did there. From the priest who told his story of being called to the Pentagon the morning after, to tourists who craned their necks to look up at the impossible height the many mornings before– everyone had a story to tell.

So much has since been written; so much has since been read. The words to describe the horror and the loss have become clichéd with over use. To say that the images of the planes crashing into the towers are seared into our collective consciousness is a cliché, but it is true. They are.  To say we will never forget is a cliché, but it is true.  We won’t.

To watch the commemorations with children who were too young to realize what happened ten years ago and try to explain to them now what it meant is nearly impossible. Fury on such a scale will never be explicable. Nor will the ways those acts changed the world, the wars and loss of life entailed, the doors that have closed. Even the lesser annoyances experienced by children like my own, who have grown up thinking it is perfectly normal to remove shoes and belts and be patted down before flying back to the U.S. No, I tell them, it didn’t used to be like that when I was your age, but then again, neither was it normal to have an iPad and be able to watch any movie you want on the plane.

I spent yesterday indulging in memories. Memories of my time in the city – the one and only New York. Memories of working next door to the Towers, of taking them for granted, of laughing with co-workers as we walked through them to lunch or to have an after work drink at Windows on the World. They are memories that begin to be hazy, that start to feel far away compared to the more vivid, ‘like yesterday’ memories of 2001.

Yesterday was a day of reflection.  While it is sad that the painful memories of friends and lives lost are still so intense, it is important to remember and it was good to gather. The expat community, then and now, felt like the closest of families. It reminded me that there was good, greatness even, alongside evil that terrible day – in the kindness, the heroism, the courage, and the indomitable spirit that manifested itself. The world, wherever one was in it, felt like a global village united against terror. The way people all over the world came together, it felt like home.

05 September 2011

Facing Fear

As I might have mentioned in a prior post or two - I am an admitted worrier. I worry so well that I even worry about it. I come from highly evolved worrier stock on both parental sides and while I might not always have been quite as expert as I am today, four M-men later, the genes were there to develop.

And develop them I did. I can always find something to worry about – it is one well that never runs dry. I worry about everything from whether someone like Rick Perry could become President of the United States to whether my boys are going to find jobs when they graduate. It doesn’t matter that I’m jumping ahead here and first have to worry about them getting into good universities or passing their IB – a pro worrier such as myself can jump back and forth between present and future, long and short term worry without the slightest effort. I still have left over worries from the boys’ toddler days to the point that even now I can only boil water on the stove’s back burners.

Nonetheless, I’ve made some limited progress. Rarely, if ever, am I concerned that my sons could choke on toys with small parts. Problem is – no sooner is one worry eliminated than another appears – with three boys the possibilities are endless, and they haven’t even started driving yet.
Currently, my sons’ skateboarding provides major cause – with some justification. It has already resulted in one broken M-bone. We argue about it pretty incessantly,

Thus, I was shocked when my eldest pointed out something so obvious; it hit me like a looming vert ramp. (Skateboard lingo.) Last June, when I was once again pointing out the relative safety of staying home and studying versus riding a speeding wheeled object down concrete steps, he turned to me, fed up, and said, “Mom, you are only afraid of us doing things you don’t know how to do yourself.  You never worry about us skiing, for instance, because you ski.”  

I had to admit he was absolutely right. Although, don’t get me wrong, I have not the slightest intention of ever, EVER getting on a skateboard so as to eliminate this particular worry that causes my sons so much angst.

I did, however, attempt something else this summer. Something so brave, I am not only exceptionally proud of having tried it, I still have difficulty believing I did. In an effort to conquer worry, fear, sheer terror in the face of untried sporting endeavors, I agreed to take the boys canyoning while we were in Switzerland.

For those who don’t know, canyoning (known as canyoneering in the US) involves a technical descent of a canyon or gorge, using a wide variety of techniques, such as jumping, leaping, sliding, hiking, swimming and abseiling. In our case, it was down a magnificent granite canyon with glacial waterfalls and stunning views. The force of the freezing water is so immense as to leave one breathless. I can’t say I loved it, although now that it’s over I love the fact of having done it. Overcoming the sheer panic of leaning all the way backward over high cliffs and roping down to land or to leap into raging water is amazing. It was utterly terrifying and totally exhilarating at the same time (at least for me – for the boys only the latter.)
In retrospect, all I can say is that it certainly managed to put a lot of my other worries into perspective.  I don’t intend to ever go canyoning again, although I’m sure my sons will. But at least when they do my fear for them will not be magnified by the unknown.  And in the meantime, if they want to go skateboarding, I hope they have a great time (as long as they remember to wear their helmets and make sure they bail before a slam.)
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