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2011 in review: damage control

It’s the time of year when we look back on all that we’re grateful for, an easy job here. We’re especially grateful for teenagers and twenty-somethings!

Charlie in action for Inferno

I was quietly watching the Beatles’ Anthology on a December Sunday evening when there was a knock on the door. It was Charlie, now 16, with a couple of high school friends. Off went the DVD, and on went the Xbox playing FIFA 2012. Ten minutes later, two attractive girls, also from high school, arrived to join the boys.  I had been thinking about going to the cinema, and asked Charlie what he would have done if I hadn’t been home. “I have a key,” he replied, with a big smile on his face, knowing full well what I was concerned about. He passed his driving test in November, and had his own car before the end of the month. How quickly they figure out how to arrange things when the parents live separately!

I may never be able to leave the condo empty again!

It was in his soccer that we saw the best of Charlie this year. His Inferno team had a run of bad luck at the beginning of its fall season, losing players to injury and games to fluke goals. They were all getting discouraged. Then came the game at Sky Park against a team that was certainly no better than them. Somehow, with more of the same luck, we were down 3-0 at half time. Back on the field for the second half, Charlie quite literally took the game by the horns. Almost single-handedly, he pulled Inferno back into it, scoring three goals himself, working very hard, and the final score was 4-4. This was the kind of character that you want to see your children develop.

Charlotte and Nick at his birthday brunch in Santa Cruz

Nick too showed plenty of character this year. He has settled into a long-term relationship, with Charlotte in France. Long-distance relationships are always a challenge, although the two of them were able to spend a lot of time on Skype together. Plus during the course of the year he visited her and she visited him and he visited her again. That’s the advantage of his in-demand career, software coding: he works very hard, but earns enough doing so to facilitate periods of leisure.

On Christmas morning, waiting for Alex and Charlie to come and open their presents, I was again watching the Beatles Anthology, this time on the 42″ TV that Nick brought with him when he moved in

Then out of the blue, his start-up employer laid him off in the summer, neglecting to pay for his last month’s salary. A week or so later, his grandfather (Sunshine’s dad) died unexpectedly and suddenly of a stroke. Nick mourned his grandfather, with the family, at the memorial service and on FaceBook: “If there were ever a man I believed to be invincible it would have been you. I see you in my Mom. I see you in myself. You will remain a voice in my heart forever. I always saw such warmth in your eyes – perhaps it is what I’ll miss most. I love you grandpa, rest in peace. Watch over us – let us continue to make you proud.”

Nick quit smoking, took up soccer again, and ploughed on with his coding and his life, insightful and kind, always with an ardent edge. I had the pleasure of him moving into my condo. He decided to start learning to cook, and prepared a boeuf bourguignon, his first, that was a delight. At 25, he’s grown up a lot, and not a bad roommate at all. From Paris, where he’s taking an extended vacation for the Holiday Season, he messaged me on FaceBook: “Thank you for an excellent few months back at the dad pad.”  You’re welcome!

Alex at Disneyland in July

One of the peak moments of my year also involved soccer.

I actually won a EUFA lottery for tickets, two of them, to the Champions League final at Wembley last May. Very few people who were not associated with Manchester United, FC Barcelona or EUFA were able to go, and Charlie and I were two of them. “Chance of a lifetime!’ he exclaimed, accurately. What a game, what an occasion! My team, Manchester United, played second fiddle to Barcelona, the best team in the world, but Charlie and I did get our moment of pure joy when Wayne Rooney scored in the first half after a Rooney-Giggs one-two. Even after the game (we lost 3-1) I felt an amazing glow.

This was the best football I have ever seen live. Cross one off the bucket list.

Alex, another ManUnited fan, turned down the chance to go to this game, which was timed before the end of school and so required 24 hours of travel for 24 hours in London (not for me: I’m no longer at school!). Also, he would have seen his mother on her birthday if he had come, but would have missed her birthday dinner.  I’ll try to get him to see a fun game this coming year, but it is difficult when the Premier League season coincides with the school year.

Now 13, he takes his school assignments very seriously, which is most gratifying, almost as seriously as he takes his video games! He thinks things through very carefully, and his conclusions always have their own coherent internal logic. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is the child who seems to be handling the ongoing divorce the best, keeping very good relations with both his parents.

Ava and Alban, Alex and Charlie, on the California Screaming ride in Disney’s California Adventure Park

He’s also very funny. Here’s an exchange from a day when he was visiting my office:

Alex:                      “Do you know that when you fart in the office you lean back so that your chair squeaks?

Me, lying:            “No, Alex, I was not aware of that.”

Alex:                      “Well, I don’t think that works. Most humans have noses, you know.”

The high spot of the year was a few days in July at Disneyland in Anaheim. I took Alex and Charlie, Josh, a friend of Charlie’s, Alban and his girlfriend Ava, and Nick and Charlotte. Daphne couldn’t make it. My lovely nephew Antony brought his daughter Ava. There’s more here:  http://ianstock.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/disney-weekend/.

To this day, nothing feels better than having fun with the children, as many of them together as possible, even though they’re not really children any more.

Marie-Hélène spent five weeks of summer vacation in Brittany. She couldn’t take Charlie and Alex with her this year, and so I looked after them while she was gone. That was fun. Charlie held a party for his friends in his mother’s house. Exceptionally, I was allowed in the house to help look after the children.  Some of the issues were easy to resolve: up to five boys could sleep over, but no girls, no, forget it, not happening!

The clean-up was a scream. Nick and Alban (and Ava, his girlfriend) were supposed to help. They polished off a twelve pack of Newcastle Brown playing UNO around the table in the breakfast nook, while I cleaned up! (No, they did help, but that twelve pack sticks in my mind). Charlie also helped when I asked him to, but posed this surprising question: “how do you turn on the vacuum cleaner?”

We did make it back to Disneyland, or at least some of us did, between Christmas and the New Year. Charlie couldn’t make it because of his High School varsity soccer practices, but he did mange a few days at Tahoe with his friends before Christmas. Here are Alex and his buddies Matt and Tamir in front of the tree at the bottom of Main Street.

My favorite parental moment occurred earlier at the bottom of the driveway. I was worried because several of the children seemed to be missing, and it was a pitch black night. Searching for them, I saw the tell-tale lights of cell phones down the driveway. I learned later that they were keeping one of the girls company as she waited for her parents to pick her up. I ambled on down, invisibly to them. They were singing, these angelic little voices, in unison, so sweetly, the sound of a midnight choir. The song included these lines:

“Colt 45 and two Zig Zags, baby that’s all we need,

we can go to the park after dark, smoke that tumbleweed.

And as the marijuana burns we can take our turns,

singing them dirty rap songs. . . .” . From “Crazy Rap,” by Afroman.

Good grief! I made out some of the words as I approached them, and immediately made myself known. But there was nothing burning there: I would have seen it in that black night. And there was no odor. They were just singing a song that they all knew by heart! I breathed a sigh of relief, and the group moved on. The challenges of chaperoning over twenty fifteen year-olds on almost three acres in the pitch dark!

Morgane and Tom during the intermission in the Cat Stevens concert in Paris.

Tom missed out on some of these family events, of course. Living in Paris for him is like living in the US was for me in the early years: you miss the family events across the Atlantic. But I did manage to see him twice this year, the first time surprising him at a Cat Stevens (now called Yusuf Islam) concert in Paris in May: (http://ianstock.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/peace-train-sounding-louder-2/). We had an exquisite “Father and Son” moment as Cat sang his song of that name. Tom used to sing me the song sometimes.

Then he came to California in September with Morgane, his charming Anglo-French girlfriend. He has developed great insight over the years: the positive side of the struggles of his childhood.

Now 22, he is a wonderful young man, and is pursuing his college degree in France as well as earning a living and playing and recording and putting a band together. During an April telephone call, he told me about finding some other musicians who were actually able to obtain paying gigs, not his forte yet. Naturally enough, he hooked up with them and they formed a band for a while. The gigs that they found were in jazz clubs. Tom and his friends could play just one jazz song when they got together. The guy who arranged their first gig for them at a jazz club was there when they started playing. He was still there 20 minutes later, and they were still playing that same song 20 minutes later! They only felt free to move onto the less sure ground of a song that they did not know when he finally left.

I still saw Alban and Daphne a few times at the beginning of the year. Here they are at Chili’s for Alex’s birthday dinner.

Unfortunately, I saw Daphné and Alban less and less during the course of the year, the former (now 24) getting angry with me in an email in October and not talking to me again until February 2012. Ouch. That hurt.  Well, perhaps not coincidentally, this is the year that the divorce deteriorated. The balance that Marie-Hélène and I had both retained last year went out the window, and it does make sense for her children to support their mother.

I did see Alban a few times, most notably at Disneyland. But I didn’t see him again during the year after Tom’s visit in September. He too is 22, and buckled down this year after he and Ava got together. She’s doing him a world of good. He too quit smoking, months before Nick, and announced on FaceBook as the year drew to a close that “I quit smoking 7000 cigarettes ago.” That one earned him quite a few thumbs up.

As the year ends, they are living together in an apartment in Santa Cruz and exchanging adorable love notes on FaceBook. He found a job as an apprentice electrician with a friend’s father.  It’s a good trade, which he can do almost anywhere, but of course there are several steps and it all takes a long time. This post appeared on FaceBook a couple of months after he started his apprenticeship: “12 hour work days and I’m still broke. . .”. One of his friends replied: “welcome to life.”

Ouch! Daphne’s car, after the storm

The year did not end well. During a wind storm, a large tree fell in the middle of the night from a neighbor’s property onto ours in the forest, the home which we bought in 1997 and where Marie-Hélène still lives. The house is for sale, but things never move quickly in a divorce.

Fortunately, no-one was hurt, but everyone felt the tree hit the ground: one of the children said that it felt like an earthquake. There was damage to the roof of the house (installed only a year ago), the porch roof, Daphne’s car (which was totally written off) and Charlie’s car (less than two weeks old). The insurance covers most of the house, but not the deductibles. It all feels a bit sad over there, with the fallen tree in pieces but not yet removed, and the damage waiting to be fixed or towed away.

A bit of a metaphor, that. The divorce drags on, weighing everyone down. After the almost sixteen years that we all spent as one family, I’m hoping to keep our three constituent families in some semblance of order. That’s not easy. You can’t right a fallen tree, even if over time you can fix the damage it caused.

By way of a back-up, maybe we can fit in another trip to Disneyland soon . . . .