Archive for September, 2012

Malcolm requested a photo of himself under our homemade banner. He then spontaneously decreed, “I am a Democrat!”

This past weekend, I took my five year old son Malcolm with me to go canvassing for Obama. It would be disingenuous to claim that I brought him only to give him a lesson in civics. I brought him partly as a human shield, partly as a security blanket, and partly to ease the social awkwardness. It takes guts to walk up to a stranger’s house and knock on the door, not knowing who will answer, or what they might say. Our area of New Hampshire is a genuine swing district, and we have a wide range of political opinion, socioeconomic status, and receptiveness to strangers with clipboards on the front steps. We encountered undecided voters, voters who were firmly for Romney, and voters who were firmly for Obama. And there is no predicting which when making that long walk up the driveway.

We are Yankee folk here–diffident, independent and wary. Every time someone came to the door at our knock (and plenty of people clearly hid under the couch when we approached) I could see the same suspicious regard in their faces. Having been on the other side of the door when canvassers come by, I know I probably had the same expression on my own. After all, who knocks on a stranger’s door but salesmen, religious groups and political canvassers? This is the dreaded trifecta that makes people feel the instinct to run to the bathroom and run the shower until the people just go away.

When we were done with our three hour shift knocking on doors, I had the familiar feeling that it’s never as bad as one anticipates. Everyone we spoke with was at least civil. No one let loose a stream of expletives or threatened bodily harm, so I feel the day was a success overall. And though I was glad of the reassuring company of my son, I did genuinely want him to see that we don’t just sit around in the echo chamber of like-minded liberals making snide and witty remarks about the opposition. We go out and talk with people, and listen to them.

For all the talk of the founding fathers, and the great America that supposedly once was, and that we have supposedly lost, one of the things the founders would surely lament is the nearly complete loss of political debate between neighbors, face to face. As the election draws near, I often overhear, “I hate talking about politics.” I understand that sentiment when the only discourse anyone hears is between shrill and self-righteous t.v. personalities, or between Facebook friends of friends sniping at each other and never speaking in person. It’s much harder to deride someone’s opinion when speaking to them on either side of the front threshold. So whether you’re the supplicant with the clipboard, or the person peering warily around the door, try to overcome your instinct to run away. I know you feel it, just like I do. But if we’re to overcome the polarization that we all agree is poisoning the political debate, we must really talk to each other, and we must at least try to understand each other. If we don’t, we turn over all responsibility for our own government, and if we do that, then we are surely lost.


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Farewell to the land of Mommies

Try as we might try to avoid the frenetic pull of back to school season, its chaotic vortex seems inescapable. Even those without kids in school or any tie to academia report a feeling of greater intensity at work, and a seriousness creeping in that has long been absent. We’re feeling it more than usual in the Courchesne home. Malcolm started kindergarten, and I upped my teaching gig and now have 60 students’ names to learn. Even Christophe, seemingly insulated from many of the changes in his law job (because the law never takes a summer vacation) is feeling a glowering sense of work catching up.

Fall is what we all seem to live for here in New England especially. Relieved to feel the sodden, humid air dissipate, and able, for a little time, to forget the gray snowbanks and desert dry air coming in a few months, we all prance around eating apples and taking hay rides and skipping down leaf strewn lanes wearing supple leather boots of an equestrian styling. Or, at least, this is New England in the popular imagination. And there is a surprising amount of truth to it, though I’m still saving up for some supple boots. Still, our idyll is fleeting, and it may be that knowledge that adds a tinge of anxiety to the season.

Some of my own back to school reading.

For me, it’s compounded this year by the end of my mornings with my kids. For most of their brief lives, I’ve worked two days a week and had three off with them. This was, I think, perhaps the most perfect arrangement I could have found. I got my grown-up days to do work I care about, and then I got to hang out with my boys.  Once out of the infant stage (which I confess to detesting), it became scandalously fun. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we would visit museums, hike, go to the beach, or languorously peruse the shelves at the library. As they got older and less gruelingly demanding, I began to feel a bit of guilt creeping in, that I was playing hooky this way. There is a whole separate universe of other women home with their kids, and they own the weekday morning. At ten am (the hour at the very heart of the Mommy-and-Me universe) one can observe, in any museum or nature center or library, streams of women and children pouring in for formal programs, or open studios, or story hours. They are a huge and powerful force. One day, in one of the more upscale communities we frequented, five women in nearly matching maxi dresses and pushing every color of the BOB stroller arrived together for a museum play date. The social situation was something akin to middle school–my children and I were scanned, briefly, and then scrupulously ignored as the superior children of the maxi dresses ate crayons and licked the carpet while their mothers texted each other.

Malcolm, waiting for the bus for the first time.

There are, then, things I will not miss about those mornings: the catty, petty insecurities of women of all sorts, but compounded by mommy guilt of any stripe; the feeling of isolation induced by being a part-time working mother who likes to work and would never want to give it up; the boring conversations where I feigned interest in shopping, or stand mixers, or pretended I could relate to being a sports widow whose husband can’t change a diaper. But there are more things that I will miss. I’m still with my kids every afternoon from 1:30 on, but it’s different. Their best hours are behind them, and they are crankier, hungrier and more disagreeable than they are at 10am. And we still go places, but by 3:30, all the school kids are out, and lots of parents are with them, and the noise and the activity everywhere are nothing like a mommy-and-me morning.

Malcolm jumped up on the bus for his first day of kindergarten without a backward glance and has felt not a pang over it since. His brother, now in preschool five half days a week, has been similarly unfazed. And I confess to feeling none of the teary, bittersweet sadness over their growing older either. I can see my future, just a few years hence, when I will have my own, grown-up life back, and a full career with real colleagues. I don’t need to rush it, but I don’t need to linger in their baby years either.

Yesterday was one of the perfect early fall days that sustain us New Englanders. After school, I took the boys to the beach. They swam in the late summer Atlantic, at last warm enough not to numb one’s limbs, and they dug for treasure, and flung dead crabs and sand at each other. It could, from most outward signs, have been July, but for the little shifts one senses but hardly registers consciously. As we walked back to the car at five o’clock, the sun was already at a low angle, and our elongate shadows passed ahead of us on the sand. Mine was grotesquely distorted, but my boys’, flanking mine, and for now, holding my hands, appeared merely older. Simon’s big round baby head was instead normally proportioned atop broadening shoulders. Their legs were lanky and slim-hipped. They could have been 12 and 10. With their sleek shadows gliding ahead, and the receding sun behind, there was the sense of something ending. But in the shift, there is another thing beginning too.

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Before, with support crew.

It’s been nearly a week now since I finished my 25K race around Cape Ann in Massachusetts. For those unaccustomed to metric distances, it was about fifteen and a half miles. It’s the longest distance I’ve ever run (er…jogged), and I was surprised that it went reasonably well. I am not “competitive” in the sense that I am not a contender to win or place in any races, but I am, in one other sense, deeply competitive. This phenomenon where runners of average or below average athletic aptitude retain a champion’s helping of woundable pride is best observed in the latter stages of a long race like this one.

My race started once we were about 3 miles in and the crowd had thinned at least somewhat. I could sense, and partly see, a woman just off my right shoulder in a blue running skirt. BlueSkirt was hunting me. She was using me for pacing and was just off my heels. I knew I could beat BlueSkirt, but at mile 4, I had to dodge into a port-a-potty. When I emerged, I saw BlueSkirt up ahead just cresting a small hill. Though charging up hills is not advisable, I irrationally needed to overtake BlueSkirt at that point. I bolted up and promptly blew by her. I didn’t see BlueSkirt again the rest of the race. One foe vanquished, I settled into a steady cadence for several miles. By mile 9, the field had stretched so far apart that only about 5 other runners were visible ahead of me at any point. Two of these, PurpleSkirt and YellowShorts would become my companions and my competition throughout the remainder of the race.

Support crew awaiting the dramatic finish. Thank you, Petersen family, for driving down to be there!

When running behind someone for a considerable distance, one grows rather intimately familiar with her outfit, her gait, her leg muscles and the back of her head. PurpleSkirt had a big, grapey colored tattoo on her left leg, and the flash of it with each step hypnotized me for a mile or two as I drafted off her shoulder. YellowShorts was probably in her late 50s, with a big gray mop of hair flying behind her and ropey calves pumping steadily before me. It was only the three of us for a good long time, along the roads leading into Gloucester center. As we came into town, all the race officials  had dropped away, there were no more mile markers or water stations, and it seemed we had been abandoned along the notoriously treacherous intersections of a New England town. I overtook both YellowShorts and PurpleSKirt, and semi-delirious at mile 12 and 13, I saw many runners staggering off into alleys. I picked my way around parked cars and people sitting on glass strewn stoops when up ahead I heard the urgent dinging of railway crossing barriers dropping into place. To my utter disbelief, our route to the finish was being closed off so a train could pass. I threw my head back and yelled to the sky, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” As evidence of our poor state of mind by this point in the race, 4 guys and I dashed across the tracks anyway, keeping a wary eye on the commuter train still stopped at the station platform. Having made it across, and with neither YellowShorts nor PurpleSkirt in evidence, I tried to pick up my pace with a mile and a half to go. That distance, at that point, seems to stretch on infinitely, and I was rounding the corner into the middle school parking lot where the finish line was set up when PurpleSkirt materialized off my right shoulder. I recall thinking, “Oh hellno.” Some kind of surge of determination flooded me and I left her behind, snatched my finisher’s medal and looked urgently for a discreet place to be sick. (This is the mark of a good race, obviously.) As I walked back toward my waiting family, I saw PurpleSkirt with hers. I smiled, and thought of saying something, but the look she gave me was so cold, I just walked right on by.

There she is, right off my shoulder, making her move!

PurpleSkirt was trying to pretend nothing had happened between us. And I know I finished ahead, but realistically, she may actually have beaten me in final time since she might have started farther back in the pack. The point is that we were rivals and companions through those difficult middle miles. She had given me something to focus on, and I had given her the same. I refuse to admit the possibility that I imagined the whole thing; our speeds may be vastly more modest than an Oympian’s, but the fundamental drama is the same. Passing, getting passed, stalking someone’s peripheral gaze, being stalked. It’s why we pay to do these races instead of just running 15 solitary miles at home. Nobody wants to lose, but PurpleSkirt and I both were bested by hundreds and hundreds of people anyway. Our race had narrowed to a tiny field of three, and once you set your eyes on the runners you’re racing, you subtly announce yourself to them. So PurpleSkirt, you can pretend it didn’t happen, but we both know it did. I’m GrayShirt, remember me? And I’m up for that rematch anytime.

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The modest haul from Fairfield Antiques Mall.

The per capita density of thrift stores in the greater Waterville area must be tops in the universe. While my mom and I have been hitting the clothes stores in downtown Waterville for a few years now, we only just discovered the riches of antiques alley in Fairfield and Hinckley, Maine (site of the unnerving and wondrous LC Bates Museum of my last post). As we left that museum and were headed home, we could not resist the allure of the massive Fairfield Antiques Mall, a sprawling and dilapidated barn/house? filled to the rafters with stuff. We got pulled down this rabbit hole, becoming completely disoriented between its multiple floors, half floors and basements. And we never even made it to the “annex” or the outdoor merchandise. What makes this place so surreal is its location at the edge of a field in a place where even the owners admit there is no there there. It is: “on the way to many of Maine’s tourists destinations.  Visit us on your trip to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park or Downeast Maine.  We are on the way to Baxter State Park, and Exit 133 from I-95 is used by vacationers headed to the Northwoods on rafting and fishing expeditions.  We’re on the way to major Snowmobile and Skiing areas.  Route 201 is also a Major access route to the Province of Quebec Canada.” 

This place is on everyone’s route, but at no one’s destination. And it is massive. We had the boys with us, so we couldn’t linger as we might have. While Malcolm is a dedicated picker, yard saler and thrift store frequenter, Simon does a lot of rolling around in the aisles and licking things. He did find one captivating creature who caught his eye though:

I showed great restraint and bought only a couple toys to buy my sons’ cooperation, a few old timer glass linament bottles and a 1960 edition of Niko Tinbergen’s classic work “The Herring Gull’s World.” My mother had her eye on a plastic lady’s torso that is illuminated from within via a plug. She inexplicably passed on it, much to my surprise, and we left the strange shop on the road wondering if it had all been a dream. How unnerving then, to find that my printed receipt read “There are No Returns.”
It turns out, however, that there are. My mother couldn’t stop thinking of the lighted lady torso, and the next morning, before she embarked on the drive back down to Massachusetts, she drove 40 minutes back up to Fairfield to retrieve her prize. And she reports that the shop was indeed there, and was no shimmering mirage.

We visited several thrift stores during our two weeks in Maine, all of which had their particular wonders. But I would be deeply remiss if I did not single out Madlyn’sin Waterville. This is a consignment shop with an exceedingly well edited collection, plenty of inventory, and excellent prices. The shop moved to a new, larger location last year, and now houses men’s, children’s, and a hilarious vintage collection on the lower level, in addition to the entire upper floor of things for the ladies. I got a sack of great stuff for thirty bucks, but the find of the day was a handmade, three piece tweed collection consisting of sleeveless dress, flared skirt, and jacket. They fit as if they were made for me, and since I am practically child size, this was a welcome, but inexplicable surprise.

Sixteen dollars for the lot.

In the vintage corner, I found a bright yellow pair of pumps in a wide width for my frog paddle feet! (The portrait I am painting of myself here is growing progressively less flattering, I realize.) There’s even a $1 rack where I got a blazer for, well, a dollar. If you’re ever in the area, stop in. The owner is absolutely delightful, and her shop is a thrifter’s dream.

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