jeudi 23 avril 2009

Earth Day in the garden

The Judas Tree

still lopsided, but in flower

Not much happened. I made another fire to burn even more biomass, which came from a second go at the box hedge down the main stair, principally. It was so vastly overgrown when I arrived here. It looked like a box hedge from Animal's garden.

Oh! A frog! Kermit!

So, I am a little obsessed with frogs. Anyway, here's the box hedge as it was when I met it. Do you see the resemblance to Animal's head? No?

No, not red. Not the color. The presence of what looks like long, hanging hair. Everywhere.

This photo was taken just about now, 6 years ago. You can see the Wisteria in bloom on the arch over the furry box hedges and stair, and the "white flowering shrub" blooming in the background. I now know that it is a Spirea. What I still don't know is what is the star-shaped, pure-white flower with faint gray stripes to the tips of the pointed petals on the second terrace. Anyone who has an idea, please, please let me know in the form of a comment. There are so many flowering plants that grow from corms, and so many varieties of each.

It looks a lot like a Star Lily (Zigadenus fremontii), but it doesn't have the same markings and the petals are not quite the same, either. Still, the buds of the unopened flowers are similar.

Back to the box hedge.

It has been a work in progress to tame the hedge, each year trimming it further and further back into the wood and letting it leaf out so that it doesn't look like a dry, brown box skeleton all summer, but each summer, it's too big. You have to turn a little bit sideways to make it down the side stairs on the intermediate terraces on either side (from where I took that photo). This is especially embarrassing on the other side, leading to the barbecue and the gazebo, where we often have lunch or dinner with guests in the summer. I get very tense as I imagine them thinking She could at least trim the box, for goodness sake. And she calls herself a gardener! Any self-respecting gardener would be ashamed.

Actually, that would be more like, Elle pourrait au moins tailler le buis dis donc. Et elle s'appelle une jardinière! Elle devrait en avoir honte. N'importe quoi. Je rougie.

Then, it got even worse some three years ago, when the box started to die out at the top of the left side. I had to cut it all out until there was practically nothing left. Guests asked about that, and I imagined them thinking Ah la la, ça il y est. Elle a tué le buis. Je pensais bien qu'elle est nulle et voilà la preuve. It's really terribly hard for me.

It came back, just like I said it would. Just a few chunks missing. A little patience is all that is required.

The St. John's Wort, or millepertuis, is all cut out and ready for the new growth to come in bright green and unblemished by the scorched looking crop left from the previous years. One is encouraged to go at it with the lawn mower at the end of each season. As I previously explained, a lawn mower is not practical in my beds, so the electric hedge trimmer had to do. Which brings me to my little story.

Back when the workers were still coming, they kept using the long black outdoor extension cord and throwing the circuit breaker in the house and garage. That's the same cord I have used for years in the garden, seeing it grow progressively shorter as I regularly cut it with -- the hedge trimmer. I'd have to go get a screw driver, cut the cord at the place where I had partially severed it (throwing the circuit breaker along the way), remove the plug, strip the insulated wires, reattach them to their proper contacts and reaffix the plug. After God only knows how many time the workers blew the electrical panel with it, I tried it the day I decided to mow the upper terrace and -- nothing.

"Audouin? Pourrais-tu voir ça," I handed him the cable. He, like his father before him, loves any project that involves a circuit and power tester thing, pliers, and etcetera. I can see the future. "Il ne semble plus marcher."

He went off in search of his -- power tester thing, sat down and got to work.

"Ca ne marche plus." Thank you. Thank you very much. "La terre est cassée. Il n'y a pas du courant dans la terre."

"Ben. Je vais en acheter une autre." This is a very important and pregnant sort of announcement. Nothing, and I mean nothing gets thrown away because every broken thing has its potential future use, making the purchase of a replacement highly dubious, and so I was very surprised when he said nothing. Made no objection whatsoever. The guy at the hardware store did say he was right, however, to keep the old one, "Mais il a raison votre mari. Ca peut bien servir un jour."

Les hommes. I smiled. You have to be very understanding and nice to them.

I brought home my new 25 meter outdoor electrical cord on a bobin with 4 built-in plugs and my separate additional 25 meters of cord to plug into the bobin for the farther reaches of the garden.

"C'était combien?" asked le mari.

"41 pour celle avec la bobine et 27 pour l'autre," said la femme.

"Ah, c'est cher quand même," exclaimed le mari, adding "mais c'est bien." Ouf, sighed la femme and went to mow the lawn, vowing to herself to be very, very careful with her precious new acquisition.

The day before yesterday, she went and got them out of the garage, plugged in the one on the bobin, reeled it out to nearly the end at the top of the box hedge, plugged in the second and set to work. All went exceedingly well. She finished the first go at the main box hedges and did the smaller ones on each side, as well as shearing the St. John's Wort on the left. Taking a break, she went to see her son to see what he was up to. She knew to go directly to the computer, where he was in a pair of tennis shorts, shirtless, headphones plugged in to watch How I Met Your Mother. Or something.

"Sam." She waited. "Sam?... SAM!"


"Could you please finish your room."


"Now." No movement. "NOW."

"I'm watching something.

"I see that. You've done enough of that, and your room still isn't done." It had moved at a snail's pace for several days, even though the dusting was pretty good, and I hate doing it, too.

"There's only 5 minutes left."


"Mom! --"


"Jesus Christ!" swore the son, a furious eye fixed on the mother, and over went the chair. That mother thing snapped in her heart. There were two furious people in a very, very small room. She returned his glare, feeling her heart break, seeing the expression in the pupil of his eyes change in an awful sort of connection. Recognition. Realization. Decision. He wasn't going to take it back.

"You owe me an apology."

"No I don't. You owe me one," he spat at her and stormed to his room. She wished she could take it all back, but those who understand adolescent development tell her what she knows, that these awful confrontations permit him -- give permission to him -- to grow up. Why, God, does it have to be so extremely awful?

That, I understood later, was but the beginning. I went back out and got back to work, my brain recycling the outburst. Parents who have been down this road will tell you that "evil and belligerent" entities inhabit their sons for a period of time between 16 and 18. Nothing prepares you for it, and only hearing them tell you that it ends helps you pick yourself up, calm your hysteria as you think you are losing this precious and cherished warm, intelligent, beautiful person to the creature come to steal his soul.

It feels like the end of everything that has been most important and wonderful in your life. It feels like you will never be alright again. It feels desperate and very, very scary, like the child you know is getting lost. He's still there, but you fell like you have to hold onto him for dear life. And you should always get the keys to your car and drive away when he rears his head. Anything to stop the worst from happening.

You know that the English teacher's comment on the avertissment de comportement, recently arrived in the mail, that he used inappropriate language twice in her classroom is the same thing, even as he tries to explain it away. You know that she doesn't love him. She is only furious with him and wondering how you could have been such a fuck up of a parent. You wish you knew how, too. What you want to tell her is that he is so afraid and all that fear makes him more afraid still, and it comes out as anger and failure, making him even more afraid.

When they are hardest to love is when they need love the most... or the most love, said a friend, stopping me dead still in my tracks.

She is right, but I wasn't thinking about that when I was going over and over everything that is wrong and cut the cord nearly in two, with a horrible little bang! and black smoke issuing in a sudden puff! from the cord. I uttered an expletive in the abruptness of the silence, instantly thinking that Sam heard me through his open window and thought to himself with satisfaction Ha! Serves her right.

I went and threw the circuit breaker in the garage, dug out the old white cord from the workers' mess in the smaller of the two guest rooms they appropriated for themselves and went back to work. Audouin was on duty. I had until the next evening to go get a replacement and stuff the severed one into the nearest public garbage bin, where he'd never see it and be none the wiser. I'd go back to the hardware store the next day before he got home.

I did not feel proud of myself for that, or much of anything that day, and it got worse still. We scared ourselves silly that night. Or, I scared myself silly and humiliated myself in the eyes of my son, who got a taste of a woman's fear and rage as he defended his face, at more than 6 feet tall, from the slap I, at more than 9 inches shorter, tried to land. Failing, I went insane. I completely lost it in fear and frustration and anger. Just like Sam, almost every day.

I called Audouin at the hospital, who already had his fair share of emergencies to attend to, and sobbed into the phone.

"Peux-tu essayer de te calmer et me dire ce qui c'est passé?" I sobbed harder. Everything was wrong. All that is romantic about France, all that is wonderful about France also has its other side, and the fear I feel that I brought 7 years of suffering on Sam by bringing him here to this most horrendous of pedagogical nightmares -- even for French kids who don't fit in --, and, to make things worse, to have so totally bollixed up managing to parent any of our kids together so that everywhere I look, I seem to see failure and ruin of some sort, is just too much. I told him what had happened between sobs, wiping my nose on the sleeve of my old terry robe.

"Mais, s'il est en échec à l'école, c'est d'abord lui qu'il faut remettre en question." I hate this discussion. We have it all the time, and he is actually in agreement with me on most of it, but the French fatalist in him goes back to "you can't buck the system" with a shrug of the Gallic shoulders. My sister-in-law, who married one of his brothers, a less conforming version, said C'est Jacobean, with an air that said Voilà tout. It was like someone turned on a light and everything was thrown up in perfect detail. Better still, I was not wrong. "Sam a trop souvent entendu," continua-Audouin, "les discours contre l'école et le système d'éducation." I felt like a fly in a spider's nest.

I pointed out that he says as much to his youngest son all the time, saying that the teachers are often jerks who are less intelligent than many of their students, having obtained their tenured jobs with a minimum of studies for a maximum of state-sponsored benefits.

"Oui," he admits, "c'est vrai, mais je lui mets la responsibilitié sur lui de se plier est de répondre à leurs demandes, de faire ce qu'on demande de lui, sans répondre."

"Et moi? J'ai suivi ton exemple pour avoir moins de problèmes entre toi et moi, pour ne pas devoir entendre tes reproches, et tu sais aussi bien que moi que ceci ne marche pas dans tous les cas; 3 enfants sur 8 dans ta famille qui n'ont pas pu aller jusqu'au bout au lycée, ayant préparé le bac comme candidat libre," dis-je lui, adding that the situation of most of his own children wasn't particularly promising, and in the case of one, who exhibits next to no intellectual curiosity, it certainly isn't school here that is going to awaken it and help her develop a keen appreciation for the joy of learning and discovery.

"Ca ne compte pas. C'est le caractère," réplique-t-il.

"Bien sur c'est le caractère! Il faut savoir apprendre à tous les caractères et mêmes les valoriser! Martin qui pourrait finir comme Sam car Sam partage cet esprit révolté qui se répand autant dans ta propre famille (française)," retorquai-je.

"De toute manière," repris-je, "comment puis-je accepter que j'ai donné à mon enfant des années de souffrance au college et au lycée seulement parce qu'il a un temperament et un caractère qui provoquent les problèmes les uns sur les autres à l'école? C'est sa vie. Imagine que tu avais à vivre ça tous les jours au travail; tu serais fou. Et même toi," continuai-je "tu n'allais pas en cours à la fac car, comme tu le sais, les profs se servent uniquement de l'écoute, les enfants martelés par l'exigence qu'ils prennent des notes parfaites, dans leur façon d'enseigner bien qu'on sait qu'il y a 5 manières différentes d'apprendre. Dans la meilleure de la pédagogie anglophone, on essaye d'en tenir compte de toutes les 5 pour le plus grand bénéfice de tous les élèves." I was on my usual tracks. No stopping me now.

"Sam est visuel et physique, et, comme toi, il préfère de lire que d'écouter et de prendre les notes sans cesse et sous l'oeil critique des ses profs. On le sait, tout le monde le sait, mais leur pédagogie qu'il ne faut jamais remettre en question ne peut pas atteindre des bons résultas dans des tels cas. Comment peuvent-ils se contentent des tels bilans? Je suis d'accord que c'est la maturité qui aurait du permettre à Sam de transferrer leur modus operandi en le sien en s'appliquant d'avantage, mais il a déjà connu tout simplement trop d'échec," dis-je.

I'll get around to translating that. Or, maybe you could just stick it in the translator to the right and save me the extra typing.

Worse, we gave Sam Concerta and then Ritalin to treat a difference in learning style and a refusal on the part of the teachers to understand that such things matter a lot right along with the suffocation of spirit and creativity of thought that is the French education system. For shame. Just call the symptoms of the real problem, the misery in class, ADHD and hold the wrong party accountable.

"C'est mon sentiment," dit-Audouin, "que Sam a fait un choix, comme Grégoire en première, et depuis quelque temps a laissé tomber toute espérance à la réussite scolaire. Je lui parlerai demain. Essaye de te calmer et de dormir." Of course he has gievn up all hope of succeeding in school. That is exactly what is so terrible.

"Ce n'est pas un vrai choix quand l'indivu ne peut pas comprend les conséquences par un manque d'expérience de vie et poussé par la frustration qu'il resent depuis si longtemps. On parle des enfants et un système qui ne fait que de dire dans leurs soi-disants 'appréciations', même à ceux qui réussissent par tous les critères possibles, Peut mieux faire." lançai-je, furieuse but done crying.

I had no alternative but to calm down and sleep, hoping to find a shard of my relationship with my son from which to piece together a semblance of what we had had before the evil and belligerent entity became his roommate and I went crazy, and in the morning -- his morning, my noon -- I knocked on the door.

"Sam?" Nothing. "Sam?" I opened the door and smelled boy. He was still there. "Sam?"


"I was thinking, we had a really bad experience last night and scared ourselves. Do you want to get your camera and take the dogs up to the coast for the afternoon?" I had confiscated the camera the previous night, along with the keys to his scooter and his Thai boxing equipment -- anything that brings him pleasure and "distracts" him from school work --, just before I told him he was never going back to school and could find a place to live. I told you I lost it.


"Think about it, but don't take too much time because it takes a couple of hours to get there." I returned to the garden on a gorgeous day. He came out sometime later.

"Is it too late to go?" We'll be okay. Somehow. It was a little late. We're leaving soon, stopping for lunch at the old port in Honfleur and then driving up to Etretat. He's never been there.

"Can you drive me up to the hardware store? You need to drive, and I need to get a new extension cord."

"Why?" I explained, adding, "and I can't tell Audouin because he'll say the same thing he always does." Sam drove me store, and as he parked, I said, "I wish you could go in."

"Why?" he asked, suddenly grinning. You see? I don't even have to explain. We know each other. I laughed.

"Yeah, I'm afraid the guy will recognize me." He already had when Sam and I went in the other day to get plastic storage boxes for his stuff. I knew he wouldn't really want to go in, sweaty after a run and wearing his marcel, like Marlon Brandon without a cigarette.

"You can always just tell him you need another one."

"Another one. Yeah. Another 25 meters of outdoor power cord." Like we live in Versailles. "Maybe you can find a garbage can for the broken cord."

I felt terrible.

"Or, maybe I should keep it. I could always stuff it in the attic and then bring it out, I suppose, and fix it one day, with a new plug (this one has the kind you can't remove). Of course, it would be obvious, but maybe I'll be feeling more courageous by then." He nodded, and I went in to buy the new one. The man remained, happily, in some other aisle and didn't see me. I didn't have to say anything, or even smile to warn him away. I felt really silly by the time we got to the Transamazonian on the way home.

"Maybe I'll just suck it up and tell him. I mean, it's really immature not to. I'm nearly 50, and here I am, acting like a 10-year-old with her father."

"You don't have to, Mom."

"Yeah, but what kind of an example is that for you?"

I told him. The motorcycle was there when we got home. He was back from the hospital. I could hear him talking to the neighbors, who were, it turned out, telling him that they had come by several times with a bouquet of flowers for me to thank me for their cat, who was doing just fine, his broken pelvis all mended after being hit by the car and finding his way to our garden (God only knows how he got over the walls), but I was never home. He came looking for me in the garden, where I was kneeling, weeding under the hydrangeas by the gazebo. I confessed the whole thing, just like a 10-year-old, including the fact that I was going to hide it from him.

"Tu l'as fait encore?" There was a very slight emphasis on the "again". He looked at me from inside the gazebo, fingering the sliced cord, and said, "Dans deux endroits." There was, in effect, not just one clean slice, sparing only the ground, but another less profound one some centimeters away.

"Oui. La taille-haie a du sauter dans l'instant j'ai mis à réagir." I thought I had been quicker than that. Worse, I had just moved the cord out of the way, thinking You're about to cut it.

"Ben." He was smart and considerate enough to leave it at that. I felt a surge of love for him.

"On peut peut-être la réparer." He nodded. We can fix it.

When they are the hardest to love is when they need love the most... or the most love. The rest, we'll have to keep figuring out with patience.

Got to go.

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