Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where have all the Sillies gone?

This is me at about two. It's one of my favorite photos of all time.

It looks like I'm having a whale of of time, doing whatever it is that small girls do to be silly, and really cracking myself up in the process.  (Those are, I'm told, hibiscus buds hung on my ears for 'earrings'.)

By all accounts I was a pretty funny kid.  Always full of things to laugh about, always willing to break out in fits of giggles at the slightest provocation.  Apparently I didn't worry too much about doing things right, like my older brother, and I wasn't particularly defensive about getting bossed around like my younger brother sometimes was.

So here's what I want to know:  when did I lose that?

Been doing a bit of re-reading of my posts, and honestly, they tend to be a bit........serious. I watch myself parenting my kids, sometimes, and wonder where my ability to guffaw out loud went.  I want to know where my willingness to see the silly side of something buggered off to.

Example:  out to dinner with three small ruffians who were hungry, grumpy and wiggly.  (Not in that order.)  Smallest decided to stand up on the table, and in a defensive move intended to deny such atrocious manners, I managed to knock her into my LARGE water glass, which then overturned into MY lap.  With a crotch full of ice water, I was gasping, and she looked up at me with big two year old eyes, points to her Croc, and bursts into tears.  Maaaaaah shooooooooooooeeeeeeeees!!!!!!!!!!!!  she wailed.  There were indeed a few drops dampening the rubber.

And honestly?  It took me until tonight to laugh about it.  It was really really cold! (Did not take the children's grandmother that long to laugh.  My horrible unsympathetic mother was in spasms of giggles throughout the rest of dinner.  She occasionally stopped laughing to ask if I had defrosted.)

I recently talked to my husband about someone we'd met recently.  I told him that this person was really lovely and all, but that I just couldn't put any time into building a friendship there.  You see, I'd detected a tragic absence of any sense of humor.  So my need for humor can't be that far repressed, if I still count it as a deal-breaker for a friendship. 

In fact, I can list a number of suitors through the years that I dated strictly because of their sense of humor.  Turns out, that's not quite enough to build a dream on, as the song goes, but I sure did have a lot of laughs.  The relationship that caused me the very most unhappiness was one where the guy had a -ahem- limited sense of humor, but stunning good looks.

I'm just wondering.  How much of adult life have I spent glowering about injustices, the sheer stupidity of others, the mean letters I keep getting from the MVA when I've done nothing wrong,  the dishes broken by careless dish washers?  There is so little that is truly unhappy.  So little that doesn't have something you can laugh about if you need to.

My favorite quote ever from my grandmother?  It's no laughing matter, but its no matter if you laugh.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bird by Bird

Hey y'all.  Guess where I've been?  You know, where I've been since last........Monday?

Yup. On Twitter. 

I haven't been posting that many tweets actually.  Every once in a while I open my little tweety-beak, and RT (re-tweet) something, or comment on someone else's Tweet.  But heck - if you thought using Facebook to comment on the status of the sister-of-your-best-friend-in-junior-high was strange, try commenting on the status of an uber-blogger that you follow. 

The main surprise I've found over there in Twit-land is the sheer volume of links posted - links to other people's amazing blogs.  Links to other people's articles being published in some on-line journal.  Links to fabulous sites where the contributers write/produce/manufacture The. Most. Fabulous. Things!  Twitter can keep you clicking all afternoon long.

Great site designs.  Inspirational connections, insights, and writing - oh, the writing!  There are some amazing people crafting the language out there on the Internets. 

And with each click, with each link followed, the anxiety levels rise......rise......rise.........RISING!!!!!  Looming above me, in fact, with scary thought bubbles that say really helpful things like oh wait, what? you thought you might write a blog after reading all this? ha. HA! Or something like that anyway.

Now I know it ain't cool to whine that the cool kids say all the cool things, and what am I going to say, poor small Winona-Ryder-in-Lucas blogger that I am.  I'm just sayin: Twitter makes me anxious. 

So I'm sort of processing where I go from there.  What do I say when confronted with evidence that it's all been said before, on a site with a cleverer domain name.  Do I go serious? Get all philosophical and perhaps [gasp!] theological? Do I go funny, and talk about how my kid got a black eye from falling off the front of the toilet? Do I stay RANDOM, and leave my readers wondering what the heck is going to pop into my brain that day?

So here's the little thought I have to repeat to myself throughout the day to keep the crazy scary thought bubbles at bay and then collapsing in a heap of hyperventilation:  you're just writing. 

I'm writing because that is what I do.   I'm writing because I made a promise to myself that this little voice o' mine wouldn't get swept under the floormats like so many Goldfish crumbs.  (Remember that?)

It would be nice if my blog had a swishy design, if I could figure out TrackBacks and TweetDeck and Mr Linky.  Actually, it would be nice if I had enough content, you know - stuff to read -  that would justify all the high-speed upgrades.

I am writing because I am a writer. I will keep doing this thing, this putting one word after another here in this space, because that is what I do.  Same way as you get back to running by putting one running shoe in front of the other (preferably with your feet in them), this is the way you learn to write: by putting the words down.

It took me until this very point in the post to suddenly bring to mind Anne Lamott, and her wonderful introduction to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'

And with that, I will leave you with a post about this very topic, by someone I've discovered on Twitter of all places, and who said all that I just said, right up there, a whole lot more eloquently. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Where do we go from here?

I sat down at the laptop tonight completely overwhelmed by negativity.  (Whew, that's a way to keep y'all reading, right?)

My mind was spinning: the first email I read tonight was about a family friend who lies in a coma in a hospital in Rome.  She truly had La Dolce Vita there in Italy - three small kids, a husband who flies around the world for KLM, a beautiful jewelry business.  Then, one strep infection = bacterial meningitis = total profound coma, from which it is highly unlikely she will emerge.

I was fresh from my parents' house, reading the Washington Post and seeing this horrific picture from Haiti for the first time:

And then of course today is the Martin Luther King Jr holiday.  A day when many of us look around and ask if we are living his dream - if we are even trying to work towards it anymore?  I know that I had more than a few twinges of self-recrimination when I spent the day ferrying to and from playdates instead of making it a day of service.

I even asked my husband out loud:  so just where I am supposed to go from today?

Here's my answer for you, for today.  We go to the people teaching the adults of tomorrow.

My friend Susie is one of the world's funniest, deepest, and most lovely people you will ever meet.  She is also a kindergarten and first grade teacher.  She is exactly the sort of person you want spending the day with your six year old:  the sort of person who will take the kids outside to lie on the ground and look at clouds, and who will talk about connectedness and personal responsibility with total respect for the kids' ability to get it.

Today on Facebook Susie posted this quote from Dr King: Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

Here is a picture of Susie's class talking about this:

Susie's explanation: ...we do an activity that illustrates the concept of interconnectedness. One student holds one end of a string and then it gets passed from one student to another (randomly). Everyone has to hold on to their part of the string or it affects the whole. I think it's a great little object lesson, and such a beautiful concept. We may not choose to care for those around us, but we are still connected- that is the reality of our existence!

And here is her explanation of how this all connects with Dr King's quote: I love [his] quote because of the philosophy that seems to be driving it- it's not just 'I'm responsible for me and you're responsible for you'. It goes beyond that and says, 'Yes, I'm responsible for me, but my choices and actions affect you, so in that way I'm also responsible for you too!!' You can never be truly whole if you're focusing on just part of that equation.

I love that she is teaching the kids who will be shaping our nation in years to come.   Once they have taken this truth to heart, if more of us could own our responsibility to our community - both immediate and extended, our world would most definitely be so much closer to his dream.

Mrs Eastwood, please know that today you showed me where we go from here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Run, Forrest, Run!

I laid in the new toddler bed at some point during Wednesday night, intending to climb out & return to my own bed.  And I couldn't sit up.  My muscles were in spasms of uselessness, having been subjected to unaccustomed workouts at Silly O'Clock on Monday morning and Wednesday morning. 

Now, I'm typically hopeless with New Year's resolutions.  (Unless, perhaps, if you count the year I resolved to start wearing more feminine socks.  That didn't last either, really.)  The resolutions for improved financial fitness in 2009 failed dramatically.  (But don't you like my new bag?  Isn't it pretty?)

But at some point in the heady, early moments of 2010,  I said to my husband "I want to be a runner.  This year, I want to be a runner again." 

Long ago, so many years ago, I ran.  I ran Track and Cross Country all through high school, for a coach whose first priority was always to show us just how much fun running was. He pushed us hard, he yelled until the veins popped out on his forehead, but if we didn't win the meet, if we didn't make our best times?  Not the end of the world.  He only wanted to know that we'd done our best.  I wasn't a great competitor and I won very few races, but oh the happy memories of running with the team on autumn-colored trails through Rock Creek Park in Washington DC. I even look back fondly on rain-soaked Sunday morning runs with Coach Paulson, my dad, my brother, and our oversized dog.

This is me c1991- the Amazon in the Winnie the Pooh shirt.  Unfortunately, the shirt is probably an indication of just how seriously I was taking the race. I was racing with BFFs Clare & Andrea.

Running kept me going through college as well.  What began as a regime to get rid of extra pounds due to dorm life became nothing less than a daily meditation, a respite from the close-quarters of small college living and an intense academic schedule.  As I hit the streets in the very early morning or the late evenings, and pounded my way through misty English villages, I'd always meant to tell Coach Paulson just how much he'd permanently changed my outlook on exercise.

Then, boring cliche by boring cliche, running slipped out of my life.  Newlywed life proved so cozy - all that cooking/eating/kissing, then our careers started to intensify, and then death knell of all death knells to exercise:  we started having kids.

SEVEN LONG YEARS LATER, there are no more kids in the pipeline. (Ooh, that reminds me, must send Torbjorn's surgeon a Valentine...)  There are no more excuses. There is some level of sanity at stake, and I think running (plus blogging, of course) will be the best way to keep us moving in the right direction.

I love running.  I love lacing up my shoes, I love getting out on the streets, and I love the sweaty feeling of cooling down from a great workout.  When I see posters of runners, when I flip through catalogs of sports gear, when I watch my neighbor sprint down the hill past my house, my feet still itch.

I went out on Friday, ditched the grocery store run and spent a happy hour in the running store buying a brand spankin' new pair of running shoes.  This year, it's my turn. It's my turn to KEEP getting up at Silly O'Clock, to put in the miles and finally get back to my Happy Place. 

Howzabout a little virtual cheerleading along the way? (Coach Paulson is way out West, you see.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's Official: I'm a Twit

So I dived into the Twittersphere today.  I tweeted? I twote?

I can't make it work.  Not at all. I mean, I get the rough idea, that I write inane things about my life in exchange for inane information about your life, and we feel like we know what's going on in each other's lives and blogs.  I get that. 

But how do you find who to follow? Why do you want to follow 587 different peoples' lives?  Do you really want to know what's going on in 587 lives? 

I want to be New Media, folks.  I promise.  I love blogging, I love that you're all out there, and that I can write the silly things I've always written but that now I can do it, publish it, and make all nine of you laugh.  I like Facebook, in fact I'm a little bit obsessed, but I've always joked that Facebook is like the old person's Twitter - there's only so much in my life that's worth updating the world about.

I guess I'm just a Luddite at heart.  Me and my fountain  pens, my aerogrammes, and my compulsive collection of fine stationery products.

So guess what I did, my first night on Twitter? I played with ink colors, and background 'paper' and fonts.  You can take the girl out of the stationery shop, but you can't take the stationery obsession out of the girl.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A little perspective

The silly story I had for posting tonight felt wrong, somehow, as information poured in through the day about Haiti, and the devastation wrought there.

The disaster feels uniquely personal to me as I have good friend who had been scheduled to fly into Haiti a mere 12 hours after the earthquake struck.  She had been part of a mission team who were going to offer medical aid.  There was such a profound need before any natural disaster.

I don't often find myself offering the same content as Dooce, but she had a great link today on concrete ways to help.

I'll be heading there tonight, instead of my usual blog surfing, and figuring out what I can do.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Day the Clock Stood Still

I had the most wonderful day.

What? What's that you say? Oh, yes, I mean ASIDE from the mass administration of antibiotics and fever monitoring and complaints of sore throats due to strep. Really, aside from that it was one of the loveliest days ever.

You see, we just dropped out of our busy lives for the day.

Yesterday morning the kids were felled by strep throat 1...2...3 in rapid succession. By 11am I had everyone laying about on various surfaces feeling very poorly indeed. One visit to the doctors office, one visit to the pharmacy, and the antibiotics were available and kids dosed up in short measure.

(My hilarious friend & neighbor Betsy, upon hearing the news exclaimed Oh I love strep! It's the best sickness ever! Certain diagnosis, specific meds, and you're done!)

The magic of The Mold worked, and as morning dawned in the Nilsen House today all kids were back to [apparent] full strength, if maybe a little subdued.  Everyone knew there would be no school today, and we settled into our typical holiday routine - PBS Kids, coffee for mommy, and breakfast eventually.

The day slowly evolved from there:  I had no agenda, and knew I would not be grocery shopping, not meeting anyone, not having anyone over to play. They seemed to sense this lack of program, and instead of responding to the void with anarchy (much more typical in kids, including mine), they seemed to appreciate the stillness.

Cecilie made the beds, helping each of her siblings to carefully line up their animals at the foot of their beds.  Lars helped me sort laundry, making short work of Dark Colors, Light Colors and Mommy's Fancy Clothes. Annika splashed happily in the tub on her own, warning me she would "EYVE" [dive] every thirty seconds or so. As the morning progressed, we found ourselves singing along with Marlo Thomas and Free to Be You and Me, making chocolate chip cookies for new neighbors, making pictures for Grandpa's office, typing emails for the first time, and watching Lego stop-animation films online. During Annika's nap, the older kids created an elaborate Lego City game that was so engrossing they literally forgot quiet time was over.

The happy peace - nay, the miraculous peace - continued through the afternoon as we prepared a note for the new neighbors, dropped off our cookies and said hello, and wandered back home for a snack.  I watched in amazement as the older two helped Annika get her own bowl of crackers, and listened as they chatted with each other about 'house rules' for only eating in the dining room, and cracked each other up with silly songs involving the word 'potty.'

Do you ever find yourself looking at your kids and wishing you could stop the clock, just keep them the ages/stages they're in right now?

This was one of those moments:  a definite and not-too-subtle cosmic response to that wish.  With each miraculous hour that passed, I grew incredulous that somehow I was being given this entire day to enjoy my children, my children who will be 2, 4 and 7 for such a very short time, and to know that boundless riches are mine.  RICHES, I tell you - right here in these four walls that normally feel like they'll explode from the chaos.

Yep.  I had pretty much the perfect day.

Monday, January 11, 2010

When I Was Two...

I was nearly new. [A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six]

Except, not the same as brand-spankin' new.  No, at two I am in turns hilarious, sassy, kind, sweet, silly, outrageous, jealous, capricious, angry, and delightful.

Thought I'd share a few photos from Annika's last 24 hours with you...

First night in her new bed

At breakfast, showing us her 'oweeee'

Right, well that's me dressed for the day, then.

Oh well if you insist, I'll go a bit posh for you before I scrub up this kitchen

After-nap protest of big brother's burgeoning photography career

After-dinner Dance Show in our brand-new leotard and Valentines tights

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Annika Goes Large

Our house is a total shambles. Open IKEA boxes all over, mattresses on the front porch and in the upstairs hallways, and Torbjorn in the midst of it all, up to his ears in laminated MDF.

Big changes afoot in the Yellow House: Baby Annika's gotten herself an Official Big Girl Bed.

So yeah, of course there is that draft post in the folder all about how we finally moved the girls in together, way back in October - October!! - and how we'd shoehorned all the furniture in to make a very sweet room.

A dresser for the girls to share

Cecilie's bed, under the window 'for dreaming,' as requested

Annika's crib (for memories' sake)

But even as we spent an entire Saturday reorganizing the kids' rooms, we knew that in a short time we'd hit the big TWO YEAR milestone, and a short time after that we'd be looking to put the Smallest Nilsen of All into a big girl bed.

This weekend was that moment.

Maybe some kids stay in cribs until they're five or six.  I don't know.  Sadly, Nilsen kids come in the Rather Large variety, which limits their stay in the four-walled sort of bed.  Cecilie made her big transition soon after her 2nd birthday, and poor Lars had to switch into his 3 months before he turned two, just because I'd gotten a deal on a twin bed and had no space to store it.

So Annika's happily ensconced in her IKEA Hemnes daybed tonight.  (We, I mean, Torbjorn finished building it so late we didn't get any photo ops. Tomorrow, I promise.)

I have my doubts that on the first morning of Big Bed Life she'll do what Cecilie did -  surround herself with stuffed animals and begin telling them the story of how once upon a time, a very big girl got herself a very big bed... but I do know that she is thrilled to be in the Big Leagues.

Friday, January 8, 2010


And so it begins.

She stomped out of the house yesterday morning at 8.15 completely irate that I'd made two pigtails to keep her hair out of her face, instead of one ponytail. (Silly me.)  "I look like a dork!!!!" she huffed.

The night before there'd been much drama because I was ever so gently but firmly insisting that a turtleneck was going to be a necessary part of the outfit for school because it is below freezing outside.  "It's not cool to wear a turtleneck!!" she yelled.  Fine.  I'll take the 96 outfits that you have, 94 more than most kids in the world will ever have, and make them disappear.  "NO!" she said.  "I'll wear them.  Just not this month."

People, she's SEVEN.  She's in FIRST GRADE.

I knew the time was coming, the time when my vision of sweet corduroy jumpers and matching turtlenecks and tights would be kicked to the curb in favor of skinny jeans and sweatshirts. I knew I'd hear the words "I look like a dork!" and "it's not cool!", and I knew I'd get to see the backside of an indignant kid stomping off to the bus stop.

I just thought......I just thought I had more time. 

And she's one of the more innocent seven-year-olds, as near as I can tell.  She hasn't seen High School Musical, she hasn't had a professional pedicure, and [shock! gasp!] she doesn't know any Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers songs.  This is not bragging here, this is just...... wondering why childhood is getting so short.

What's the rush, world?

But then she came home from school, full of sunshine and happy stories about her day, and I remembered again [sigh] that this is a process, a journey, in which we will sometimes take great leaps forward (towards using the word 'dork', I guess) and sometimes we will listen to the happy giggles of a seven year old who loves her baby sister's slide as much as any two year old, and love love love living in the moment.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Ugly American, Part Deux

See that?  I used some French there.  Shows I'm not so ugly after all. Ha.

I'm afraid I struck a wrong note with yesterday's post.  At least, I didn't end up saying what I meant to say, which is just so silly when I'm the one in charge of publishing around here.

So here's where I meant to go with the whole 'Ugly American' concept:

It doesn't matter if you're American, French, or Mongolian.  Not really.  What matters is your intent.

If you head to a new locale, whether a new part of the city you live in, or a country as-yet-undiscovered, and expect everything to be the same as the place you came from, you miss the entire point of the trip. 

You miss the joy of travel.

The thrill of the journey is surely the discovery of the unknown:  the willingness to explore new tastes, new visions, new perspectives.  If your insistence upon having your usual bread, your usual place of worship, your usual gym workout means that you don't try a freshly-made chapati, or quietly watch Buddhist monks in meditation, or walk the Scottish Highlands, then, quite frankly - you have missed the point entirely.

When we travel, we must assume the role of guest.  We must open ourselves to all that we will experience, because this is the only way we will expand our world view to understand that really - despite differences in diet, faith, philosophy or clothing, there is so much that we have in common.   When we truly act as guests grateful for hospitality, then we will know the place we have visited.

Although, in closing, I will say this:  had I refused to be 'open' to the experience of Nutella, my hips would most definitely be less - ahem- rich in experience.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Ugly American

With all this chatter about tourism and travel, I thought today we could talk about Ugly Americans.

Surely you've heard this term?  This would be the insult tossed at those apocryphal American tourists arriving in foreign lands, toting large cameras, sporting white sneakers, and oozing a decided superiority complex.  The insult refers to the tourists' insistence on loudly proclaiming that local foods are 'weird' or 'disgusting', that hotel provisions are nothing like what is on offer in the States, and generally comparing their current location - unfavourably -  to their home in Nowheresville, USA. 

When I first arrived in England for an extended stay, I did everything possible to avoid living this stereotype.  I purchased Dr Martens boots immediately upon arrival, and essentially lived in those, and woolly sweaters for the rest of the school term.  (What can I say? It was the height of the grunge years.)  I worked hard on modifying my accent to the point where it wasn't immediately identifiable, if still a bit nasal.   I even ventured as far as not showering every day, as I'd heard this is what Europeans did. (I am now convinced, however, that if true Europeans are possessed of horribly fine & uncoooperative hair as I am, they are entitled, under a subset of the European Union Bill of Rights, to at least wash their hair in the sink, if not shower.)

I would argue that after almost twelve years in England, I'd done a fair job of assimilating.  I'd stopped blanching at cream being poured on everything, I'd pinned down a few key colloquialisms, and I'd stopped wearing shorts. Ever.  My accent had morphed - as it does with many ex-pats - into a weird non-specific amalgamation of sounds.  All it ever did was confuse business clients and telephone contacts. 

Somewhere in the years between college and career, this radical idea began to slowly dawn on me: that actually, individuals born in Europe are not by definition classier than Americans.  I can't believe how long it took me to grasp that just as there are tacky Americans who will laugh out loud at nudity in classical statues, there are tacky Englishmen, Frenchmen, and yes, even tacky Norwegians. (Not my family, of course.  I've just heard of them, you see.)

But yet the stereotype of the Ugly American persists, and the notion that all Europeans are just naturally more evolved continues to prevail. This handy little article I've linked to has a number of "simple suggestions" for American travelers.  One can hope that since the end of the "Dubya Era" some of this antipathy and stereotyping of Americans may have waned.  I will say this, however: I've come across all sorts of people, of all nationalities, and at this point in my life genuinely feel it is deeply unfair that the criticism continues to lie at the feet of the Americans.  (Or at least the Texans.)

So here's my Public Service Announcement for All Travelers, Regardless of Nationality:  it is always rude to sneer at local foods/traditions.  It is always rude to insist on being provided with only the foods that you would eat at home.  It is generally considered ill-mannered to hold forth on the ignorance/stupidity ofthe locals.  When one visits a new country, it is recommended to find positive things about the new locale. Generally, one is advised to be aware and modify the faces one makes when confronted with something new/unusual/displeasing whilst traveling.

In fact, generally, imagine that you have guests in your home.  How would you want them to behave?  Culturally, you may have some differences, but if everyone's trying to be on their best behavior, things will probably go pretty smoothly.

I'm just sayin'. It ain't just us, y'all.  Now where is my Hawaiian shirt??

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Flaneuse

We hit the Big Apple this weekend.  (I state this on the off chance that you missed the 429 pictures and status updates we collectively posted on Facebook throughout the journey.)

We had Torbjorn's brother with us, and as it was his first time to New York he was up for anything.  We recognized there was no way to see 'everything', and as such, we went the opposite direction:  our simple goals were a nice lunch, an art exhibition in a small gallery, and The Oyster Bar.

If you've never tried it, I highly recommend this approach to a city that is far too big to master in a day, a weekend, or even a week.  Simply choose places of interest - perhaps a neighborhood, or a restaurant you've read about, and then just wander from there.

After a long boring delay on 95N behind a flaming fuel truck, we arrived in the city a bit late, 11.30ish, amidst swirling snow flurries.  We popped into a Scandinavian furniture store in Tribeca to say hello (old friends, long story), then headed to the Meatpacking District for lunch.

We found ourselves in a very busy Pastis for brunch at 2pm, and indulged in an early-afternoon cocktail, just because we could.  We enjoyed fresh baked bread, Croque Monsieur, a bit of steak frites, and looked up just in time to spot a grizzled Mickey Rourke nuzzling a sweet young thing and being shown to a table toute de suite.


Post lunch we headed towards The Village, to find our destination gallery closed for no good reason, and thus we seized the opportunity for a long brisk walk.  (Did I mention the temps hovered well below freezing for most of the day?)  There were a few stops for coffee, a few wrong turns, and then we found ourselves in SoHo, and obliged to poke our heads into Vosges - strictly in the spirit of research, you understand - to determine if their chocolate was really worth such a pretentious name and carrier bag.  (It was.)

Our travels then took us towards Washington Square, where a small bar or two may or may not have called our names and lured us in with the promise of Irish coffees.  Perhaps due to the influence of said coffees, I was indulged in my impulse to browse a letterpress stationery shop for almost an hour, and I emerged triumphant with a $5 birthday card and a $17 box of Christmas cards on clearance.

After this, we took a driving tour of Fifth Ave, of Park Ave, and parts of Sixth Ave (accidentally) before we headed for Grand Central Station and its inspirational food market.  Having seen these fine things we then sat ourselves down in the famed Oyster Bar, wherein we partook of very fine martinis and some even finer oysters.

After a bit of tourist-spotting at Rockefeller Plaza and a late-night viewing of Ground Zero, we headed home:  bone weary, but full of good food, tasty beverages, and memories of a city that will be different every time you visit.

There is a name for this sort of exploration, or rather, this unique sort of explorer that I describe:  Le Flaneur or in my case, la flaneuse.   This was an end-of-century term used most seminally by Baudelaire, in describing a very certain type of 19th century Parisian gentleman who carves his very existence out of mapping the city for his own purposes, engaging with the city, identifying himself as of the city.  (For those of you fascinated by all things modernist - there are loads of you out there, no?? - I would encourage you to explore beyond the link above. Start with Baudelaire's essay The Painter of Modern Life, stop, find some absinthe to drink, then continue your research.)

I have done this time and time again - mapping the city for my own experience, outside of the guidebook's well-intended advice - walking the streets, observing. Perhaps I'll take a few photos, perhaps I will make a few notes.  Regardless of the souvenirs, what I take away with me is an individual experience of a city that is otherwise unknowable, inscrutable.  For me, this is the very best way to travel.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Only Connect

I can't remember when I started making my own Christmas card list, but it must have been sometime in college when I'd collected a fairly eclectic bunch of friends all over the world.  It was such a joy for me to spend hours in the stationery shops and bookstores, testing the weight of papers and smoothing my fingers over letterpress shapes to find cards to send that felt like 'me'.

The year I lived in France I made my own cards from thick red stationary, an opaque white ink and a new quill pen that gracefully scrawled Joyeux Noël across the top.  One of my favorite cards ever was an Eric Gill woodcut of the Nativity scene:

As soon as we had Cecilie I needed no further excuse to send out a photo of my charismatic little one.  She's had some cracking photos in her time.  In subsequent seasons we've enjoyed reviewing photos of the kids to find one that might work on a printed card.

For most years of our marriage, Torbjorn and I have worked together, drinking mulled wine and eating clementines whilst we made small notes to friends in the margins and addressed envelopes to send around the globe.  These are some of my happiest memories of Advent seasons past - the joy of preparation.

And yet.  And yet.  There is no card awaiting dispatch here in the Nilsen house this season.  There are only two other Christmases when we let this happen:  one was The Worst Christmas Ever (naturally), the other was the Christmas Annika was born (I kept hoping I could combine birth announcement with Christmas card, and neither happened.)

Every time this thought runs through my mind - just forget it - send the cards next year - it is immediately followed by E.M. Forster's quote: Only connect.  (It's very unsettling actually, to have this insistent thought pairing pop up again and again through the day.)

Only connect.

This process, this ritual in which we participate, the sending of the cards?  Some might sigh over it's 'rote' factor - that we do it because we feel we ought to.  Some might feel that sending anything other than an e-greeting is irresponsible and eco-un-friendly.  Certainly a printed card is not the only way to connect - it's just one method that this stationery buff happens to loooove.

But the connection is what seems to be slipping away from us.

This urge to let friends far and near know what has happened in your lives this year, to let them know they are in your thoughts, to let them know they're not forgotten in the busy pace of your life:  this is connecting.  And yet, how often are we mindful that we do this, or mindful of how central it is to our relationships?

I've thought to myself that perhaps a constant connectedness with each other via Facebook, email, cell phone - even Twitter - might simply override any connecting that involves more traditional holiday greetings.  But I will tell you that one of the most meaningful holiday cards I received this year was from a friend I've never met in person:  we've connected daily through Facebook, so much so that it absolutely feels natural that I should have a photograph of her gorgeous boys on my shelf.

There are many many ways to connect these days.  What I want so much for us to remember, though, is this:  with the surfeit of options open to us, we must be mindful of what we are doing.  We are reaching out to what is mutual, what is shared between us, and no matter what form the connection takes,  let us always be conscious that the meaning in our lives comes from connecting, and knowing, those around us. 

My Christmas New Year's cards may yet go out.   Whether they do or not, as we enter 2010, only connect.  What else is there?
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