The year began with the bang of Nick having a bad car accident. He was 17 when it happened. Early on a weekday afternoon in January, he was driving alone on Granite Creek Road, one of the worst winding, hilly, narrow, poorly maintained roads in the area, heading home from High School. The yellow lines in the middle of the road were almost invisible. It had rained a couple of days before, and although it was dry almost everywhere else, it was still damp on the shaded portions of Granite Creek.
A car coming the other way came over the double yellow lines and pushed a panicking Nick over the edge of the tarmac. The edge had about a three-inch high lip. He over corrected in bringing himself back on to the road over that high lip, and consequently crossed over the double yellow lines himself, straight into a minivan. Its driver was 75 years old, and not strapped in. . . . The authorities (in the person of the District Attorney’s Office) determined that there were no indices of misbehavior on his part, no drugs, no alcohol, no friends in the car, no speeding, and thus let him off without being prosecuted by the State.
So he’s prosecuting himself.
We essentially obliged him to graduate High School, which he did not want to do after the accident. His grades dropped precipitately, and he was just about the last person in the line to be awarded his diploma. He refused to drive at all for several months. We then sent him to Europe for a six-month stay based with his mom in Paris. He worked here and there (at a youth hostel, in a grape harvest), and tried to decompress. That was going to take a while. It was going to take character.
Marie-Hélène took the initial weight of the accident entirely on her shoulders. She took the call from the neighbor where it occurred, and talked it through with the conscientious and thorough California Highway Patrol officer who investigated. She held Nick as he cried and cried at the scene, and then watched the other driver and his wife, who unlike her husband had been strapped in but was still gravely injured, driven away with Nick to be flown by helicopter to the trauma center in San Jose. . . . Not an auspicious beginning to the year. She spent the rest of the year picking up the pieces, for herself and for the family. It was a real human drama, both the accident and its aftermath, and working through it took qualities that she may not have known that she had.
It may also have taken more out of her than she had to give by that point, after ten years of four or more children to look after, more in most of those years. She has so many strengths, but the worst part when one of your children has a real problem is how responsible you feel as a parent. It eats away at you. The logistics were a nightmare for her during that period, which didn’t help. I was working down in Newport Beach, only home on weekends, and Marie-Hélène was obliged to drive six children to and from three different schools scattered around the area, not to speak of handle the various soccer practices several times a week and their other activities.
Then came one of those events which looked and felt bad at first, but turned into a real blessing in disguise. In April, I was laid off by my employer in Newport Beach, after only ten months on the job, and of course moved back home on a full-time basis. The ensuing free time was a godsend. By the end of the year I was 50,000 words into a memoir of my first 18 years. It took another three or four years to finish, because work normally has to come first, but for the rest of 2004 work played second fiddle to the family, and to me. The company had been generous in their lay-off terms. There was no rush to find the next job.
I joined in what was going on in the family in ways that were rarely possible during the seven years we’d been living here in Santa Cruz. Happy Valley School had an annual Rail Faire, inspired by Mr. Mac, a train buff who had taught almost all our children at one time or another, and was much appreciated by each. He had a G scale model train circling the ceiling of his classroom.
The only year that I was able to attend the Rail Faire was 2004. I even donned period costume (well, sort of!) and participated by helping run the model railroad set up in the playground.
A real sight for sore eyes was my joining in the swimming! For many years , Marie-Hélène arranged for some swimming activity during the summer for the younger children, and any of the older who wanted to join in. As this activity happened during the week, I inevitably missed it. Not in 2004! I was careful not to impose myself too frequently, but did spend a few hours alongside the pools of that summer, and even an hour or two in them! There’s a shot of the great white English whale on his flopping way into the pool on the Pools II page.
Daphné and Alban joined Marie-Hélène, Charlie, Alex and I in France for a portion of our summer holiday. Tom was with his mom, I think, and Nick gallivanting around Europe. The vibe was not good at La Grée, at least not from Daphné, who was sliding into the habit of being pretty rude, at least to me. Although this made sense in terms of her age, turning 17 at La Grée, she had been given a car in the spring, and I didn’t understand why that wouldn’t have improved her attitude toward me. I had paid for the damned thing!
The Focus may have improved other aspects of her life: she regularly did her homework without being harassed to do so, which made her unique among the four adolescents. Plus she held two jobs the fall semester to keep herself in funds, working 30 hours a week during the Xmas rush. We bought the car, but theoretically she was to share in the running costs. We were happy to see her adapt so easily to work in the real world.
Her first boyfriend appeared to be serving some time at the pleasure of the State (we can’t be sure of this: like her mother, she is very discrete), but she remained loyal to him in the fashion of the times. She has friendships with other guys, “with benefits,” as they say in the younger set. Oh boy! We do not want to know what that means. Her grades are good, and she has a natural writing talent, but her aspirations were diverted by attending the local Teen Court. It’s a model of a real criminal court, where juvenile petty criminals are prosecuted, defended and judged by a jury of their peers, with the only adults the judge (a real one, at that) and bailiff. As a result, she now wants to work in the criminal justice system, perhaps not the ideal outcome of this well-meaning exposure. In light of her boyfriend, we call that “looking for love in all the wrong places!”
Two years younger, Alban deliberately got as close to failing in school as he could, all to be cool. We engaged Fergus to tutor for him and Tom; he’s a friend from my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, and was very pleased with Alban’s progress. He turned white when we told him Alban‘s most recent grades: “but how did he do so badly? It’s just not possible!” As I said, it was quite deliberate.
Nor would he do any of the activities that we would like, for instance continue his soccer, at which he excelled, or start high-board diving, at which he showed great promise. Rather, he applied his natural athleticism to skimboards, which involved racing along the water’s edge after a wave breaks and then jumping on a board which skims on the shallow water. So he’d gone from skateboard to surfboard to skimboard. We gave up on moving him on to blackboards, but made headway in helping him discover that not all reading will make him bored!
Tom was another beneficiary of Fergus’s tutoring skills, which I can personally vouch for having known him for so many years. He was another who did not benefit from this particular assistance anything like as much as he could have. I do hate it when the teenagers seem to be conspiring together to thwart the parents’ obviously good intentions! In this case, there may not even have been a conspiracy: both Alban and Tom are very close in age and I think simply reacted the same way. If we suggested something or, worse, required it, it was to be resisted with all possible force! Not a unique parental experience.
Tom did better at what he elected to do himself. He recently took up wrestling at Harbor High School, and has taken on with fervor learning the guitar that he received for his birthday this year, both of which are encouraging. He has even started taking an interest in cooking. All very nice.
Unfortunately, his most inflexible habit remains saying no, which he regretfully does a great deal at school as well as with his tutor. His reaction to the uncertainty of new knowledge seems to me to be to rise up against it, which does not bode well. Since I started explaining this to him a couple of months ago, he has promised to turn over a new leaf . . . next year! At least he’s thinking over the principle.
Tom and I took a wonderful road trip to western Colorado during the summer, as I exploited my new-found freedom, at least for a few months, from professional duties. From Tom’s point of view, the trip was notable for his abandoning the ever-present videos and video games in favor of the extraordinary scenery and his dad’s company. We drove hundreds of miles across back-road Nevada without seeing a motel, and explored the great American West for six wonderful days behind the wheel of a fast car. Of such irresponsible interludes is bonding made!
Charles and Alex are still at an age, 9 and 6 respectively, where it is easier to get along with them and feel at ease with them. We’re not defending ourselves constantly against this or that accusation or confronting time after time this or that refusal.
The four of us, Marie-Hélène and I and Charlie and Alex, spent Thanksgiving in Death Valley. This was another escape attributable to my temporary escape from paying work. We stayed with the Hanlons at a hotel located about 200 feet below sea level. Amidst this glorious scenery, Charlie‘s high spot was a tarantula he saw on the rocks in a dry canyon. He took four photographs of that handsome furry spider.
He is a bit influenced already by the pervasive negativity emanating from his older siblings, but remains at heart a sweet boy. You can almost see him self-consciously learning how to become a less sweet older boy, but without yet taking it to heart. On his own, maybe a little tired or worried, he likes nothing more than a long hug with a parent, and he is careful to allocate the hugs democratically between us. He remains a star of his soccer team, and is currently watching Manchester United on TV as I write this (switching back and forth between the soccer and Sponge Bob Square Pants), but supports Real Madrid, where his current soccer hero Zinedine Zidane plays.
In his Christmas wish list, mixed in with the soccer garb and video games, he wrote “Nick to come back.” Needless to say, Nick, who was taking an extended post-graduation vacation in Europe, was thrilled to hear that!
Alex plays the violin well, soccer well, and does very well at his schoolwork. He is, in short, a very well-rounded little chap, if a little fragile to look at. He has a very discerning palate, and can distinguish tiny differences in foods. The result of this ability is unfortunately that he won’t eat a lot apart from French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches from Chili’s and Mexican rice, preferably from Taqueria Vallarta.
It is always a surprise for the other team’s parents watching his soccer games when he goes at it, wins the ball and runs around the bigger and stronger looking players on the other team. Which he does with a frequency that rivals Charlie’s. At the age of six, he has taken the first step in that inexorable progression toward leaving home by starting to do the occasional sleepover at a friend’s house, and to have friends to sleep over. He is thriving and blossoming and very cute, as only a six-year old can be.
“Charles de Gaulle was a President?” he asked his mother one day recently, as she noted in the family diary. “I thought he was a goalkeeper!” Alex has the last word.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!! Or Happy Holidays, as you wish!!