Thursday, March 31, 2011

Like an Old Pair of Jeans

As the mother of a tweenage girl, I'm always making comparisons. How is she like me at that age? How is she not? Is she making the same mistakes I did or coming up with mistakes of her own?

Of course, I'd like to think that she inherited all my strengths (and none of my weaknesses, bien sur). In fact, when she was a baby we used to chant "Mommy's grades and Daddy's athletic ability" as though it was in our power to give her a best of both worlds combination. It's funny how we imagined that we had any control over this at all.

This morning, I recognized myself in my daughter in a rather unexpected way. I walked in on her getting dressed for school. She was lying on her back on her bed, fastening her jeans.

Whoa, talk about deja vu!

I was a few years older than she is, but everything seems to have accelerated these days. The year was 1980, and life was good. I sported a wedge haircut — kind of a cross between Dorothy Hamill and a new wave rocker. I'd been accepted early decision to the college of my choice. I had an exciting summer job lined up with a theatre company in New York.

And, I could squeeze into size 8 Calvin Kleins. "Squeeze" being the operative word.

Do you remember those infamous commercials? Brooke Shields was just 15 when she made headlines in several very provocative spots, packed with innuendo and very definitely selling sex first and denim second. Nothing came between Brooke and her Calvins? Hellooo?!? Nothing could possibly fit between her teenage body and those overpriced jeans.

We all wore them back then. If not Calvin Kleins, then Jordache ("She's got the look! The Jordache look!") or Gloria Vanderbilts (peddled by Blondie, no less). We all squeezed our budding, adolescent curves into the smallest size we possibly could. The smaller the jeans size the greater our self esteem.

Even today, jeans have this illogical power over how we women feel about ourselves. Last Christmas, our family went to New Orleans for a long weekend. When I took a tumble on a bit of uneven sidewalk in the Garden District, I was much more upset about tearing a hole in my beloved "7 for All Mankinds" than about my sprained ankle. Hobbling around the Crescent City the rest of the weekend, I was not only in pain but in a foul temper. I was on vacation and forced to wear sneakers and sweatpants rather than my cute patent leather boots and my 7s!

So how did my daughter learn the lie-on-the-bed-and-hold-your-breath-and-pull technique? She's certainly never seen me do it — I lost the desire to wear skintight pants quite a while ago, thank you very much. I'd much rather breathe. Did she see this in a movie? Did the jeans come with illustrated instructions? Do the girls in seventh grade compare notes?

I have to admit that once the jeans were on, they looked good. They didn't seem too tight and, as far as I could tell, my daughter was getting enough oxygen.

But, I hope that eventually she will choose comfort over constrictive cutting edge style. I hope that she will feel good in her own skin no matter what size her jeans are.

I know this will probably take a while. I'm still working on it myself.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Spirited Love Affair

Some people spend their entire life looking for their true love. My daughter found it when she was four. That was the year all the girls in Miss Amy's preschool class discovered Spirit, an animated feature from DreamWorks.

Spirit tells the story of a mustang stallion, captured by soldiers, befriended by a Native American boy, and eventually reunited with his herd. The mustang is kind, honorable, brave and, when he sings, sounds remarkably like Bryan Adams. My daughter and her friends played Spirit at recess, put up Spirit posters, devoured easy-to-read Spirit chapter books, wore Spirit hair accessories, hosted Spirit birthday parties. And, they watched the movie over and over, and over and over, and over and over. To this day, if I happen to catch Spirit on TV while I'm changing the channel, I can recite every line of dialogue.

My daughter eventually stopped watching the movie multiple times a day, but her obsession with all things equine continued to grow. She yearned for riding lessons, but the stables near us wouldn't take her until she was six. On vacation in Mexico, where the rules were a bit more relaxed, she was able to ride with us through the Yucatan jungle, along a beach and out into the water. It was funny to watch her confidently keep her seat while countless adults slipped off their horses into the water. She was already fearless. Much more so, I confess, than her loving mother. (Note to self: never agree to ride the horse they call "Conan." What were you thinking?)

Her next opportunity to ride was down in New York City, where her grandmother booked a lesson at the famed Claremont Stables on the upper westside. She was a few weeks shy of her sixth birthday, but what doting grandmama would let that get in the way? A little white lie makes for a happy little granddaughter. At just under 40 pounds, she rode an enormous palomino mare.

Weekly lessons started in earnest the following September. At first, she was too short to reach the horses' backs so sullen teenage girls had to help us tack up. She walked on a lead line around and around the ring. She took it seriously. She took direction. She got back up when she fell off.

We moved to another stable the next year, a posh hunt club with very strong traditions and very strict rules. As you would expect from the rather lock-jawed environment, they believed in riding outside in all weather. "Builds character, you know." My daughter learned to walk and to trot. She no longer needed the lead line. And, she won her first blue ribbon.

Two years later, we changed stables yet again. She's moved on to cantering and jumping, riding cross-country and competing in regional events, often bringing home ribbons. She has 2-3 lessons per week, works all day at the stable every Saturday, and she'll attend a competitive riding camp in Vermont this summer.

Some other mothers complain to me that their daughters haven't found "a passion" yet. This is most definitely not my problem. All other extracurricular interests — gymnastics, dance, piano, archery, swimming, creative writing — have fallen by the wayside. She eats, sleeps, breathes, lives, dreams horses. All horses, all the time.

In some ways, this obsession makes life easier. Looking to reward her for a high honors report card? Book an extra cross-country lesson. Advising friends or relatives about appropriate birthday presents? Just point them to the Dover Saddlery website. Need to threaten her with a punishment worse than death itself? The simple warning, "You're about to lose a lesson" puts the fear of God into her young equestrienne heart.

I'm no horsewoman. I'm terribly allergic and up until recently more than a little afraid of them. My daughter astounds me. She is naturally comfortable in the saddle but works her tail off to perfect new skills and technique. She outrides girls who are bigger and older. In her class, she is the girl that the coach puts on any horses that are acting up so she can "school them."

Riding is not an inexpensive hobby. On top of the lessons and event entry fees, there are helmets, jodhpurs, boots and show jackets. Assuming she stays with it (and who wouldn't assume so; she's been riding more than half her life), we will eventually have to lease or buy a horse. So much for any thoughts I might have had about early retirement.

But, there are many upsides as well. I've already talked about how hard she works, how determined she is to improve. And, if that isn't enough, there's always my husband's perspective. You can visit a stable any time, any day and you will virtually never never never see a boy.

"Better the stall than the mall." Indeed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not the Target Audience

When I’m not blogging or writing movie reviews (or doing laundry or helping with homework), I run a boutique ad agency. In fact, I’ve been a copywriter and creative director for just over half my life (since September of 1984 — you can do the math). Consequently, I’m acutely aware of marketing strategy, how brands combine emotion with promotion to get us to desire and buy their products.

So, when there’s something I just don’t get (like the Twilight books or Crocs or Ke$ha), I remind myself that, “I’m not the target audience.”

One recent trip to the mall with my daughter required several repetitions of that mantra. “I’m not the target audience. I’m not the target audience.”

Like Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children, let’s start at the very beginning.

We tend to park along the side of the mall, not in the large but always crowded lot near the food court, but toward the back near an exterior entrance to a home furnishings store called Restoration Hardware. There are benefits to this. I always find a space. I never lose my car. I like walking through aisles of overstuffed sectional sofas and imagining how they could possibly fit into my early 19th century colonial. And, once we’re in the mall, we are only a half-dressed hop, skip and jump away from … Abercrombie.

For my tween daughter, Abercrombie is the mall’s Mecca, a holy city of to-die-for casual clothing, allegedly meant for young adults but irresistible to younger teenage-wannabes. The shop is dimly lit with floor-to-ceiling peek-a-boo shutters that create a sense of mystery, if not downright danger, as you try to hurry by on your way to Macy’s. Too late! You are seduced by Abercrombie’s siren song.

Walk in and you’re met with stunning black and white photos of superhumanly gorgeous boys and girls, all of whom look like they’ve just rolled out of bed and need a cigarette. Your pulse begins to pound like the music that’s playing several decibels too loud. The place has its own distinct odor, their signature perfume, which permeates the store, the clothes, and your car the whole way home.

We are here for jeans. Not just jeans, but “super skinny destroyed jeans.” Apparently, there is real value associated with all the extra adjectives. Plain old jeans would only cost me $68. It’s $20 extra for the super and the skinny and the destroyed. I suggest that we get the regular jeans and destroy them ourselves. It could be fun, like one of those afternoons we used to spend together painting hideous ceramics at Plaster Fun Time. My daughter smiles sweetly and brings the super skinny destroyed jeans to the register. A preternaturally pretty young man flashes his pearly whites, sweeps his blond Beiberesque bangs away from his forehead, and swipes my American Express.

We escape from Abercrombie relatively unscathed — just the jeans, not a single graphic tee or hoodie. My daughter is elated. I’m a bit bewildered, but … “I am not the target audience.”

Next, we track down the store Pink, a colorful, brightly lit shop of cotton undies, sleepwear and Betty Boop-inspired lingerie. It’s the retail equivalent of Victoria’s Secret’s flirty little sister. My daughter needs a strapless bra to wear under a sundress for an upcoming bat mitzvah. Styles change, but there are some things you can rely on. Whether you’re 13 or 48, you buy a strapless bra because you have to — not because it’s comfortable.

As we’re waiting on line to pay for the uncomfortable strapless bra, I see a display of blue sleepshirts that say “PINK” on the front of them. Another display has green hoodies that say “PINK” on the back of them. A final display offers a rainbow of bikini underpants in yellow, red, orange, purple, all of which say “PINK” across their butts. I don’t get it. Then again … “I’m not the target audience.”

Our final stop is Forever 21 (or the store that I think of as “More Ho, Less Dough”). Really, if your tween daughter is playing a prostitute in the junior high play, you can find her some pretty convincing costumes here for a lot less than I just paid for destroyed denim. My daughter needs a little jacket to wear over her sundress in the temple ($9.99 on the sale rack), a pair of flats to dance in ($15 near the register), and a gift card, which will make the bat mitzvah girl very happy and her mother … well … less so. Like me, she is “not the target audience.”

A final stop at Starbucks (one vente decaf non-fat caramel macchiato, one frappucino), and we are all set. I may not be the target audience for Abercrombie, Pink or Forever 21, but I can consume overpriced concept coffee drinks with the best of them. I am, after all, “the target audience.”

Trip to the mall: $256. An afternoon with my daughter without any arguments: priceless.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

When you were once a drama major (and are currently at a loss for words), you can always count on the Bard.

As far as I know, William Shakespeare wasn’t actively parenting a tween when he wrote his magnificent sonnets. His poor son, Hamnet, died of the Bubonic plague at age eleven. And, although his daughters Susanna and Judith reached adulthood (presumably angsting through their tween and teen years on the way there), we can only assume that Shakespeare avoided most of the … well, drama. The playwright lived and worked in London while the girls were raised by their mother Anne in Stratford.

Yet, I can’t help but relate — as the mother of a tween — to these famous lines from Sonnet 116:

… Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken …

My daughter is much altered from that sweet and tiny baby I brought home from the Salem Hospital “Birthplace” more than thirteen years ago. She doesn’t sleep as much. She doesn’t cry as much. She has a much larger vocabulary and significantly more hair.

I have alteration found. But, my love has not altered.

“You’re still my baby,” I tease her. But, when I look at her, I don’t see a baby. I see a brave young woman who still enjoys being silly, even as she negotiates this oh-so-serious thing called adulthood. I admire her determination when she’s trying to prove herself at a new school. I envy her courage when she competes in a cross-country riding event. I take pride in the kindness and generosity she shows her friends, and even shows her mother once-in-a-while.

Of course, there are many other times when she’s my own “dark lady.” Mysterious, moody, utterly impossible to get through to. She can be a veritable “tempest” ripping through our house, pulling us along in the wake of her stormy passion. I am often (too often) shaken. Despite my best intentions, despite more than 10 years of yoga classes, I lose my cool. My voice rises to match hers. And guess what? I’m bigger, I’m older, and I can be louder.

But after all the histrionics, when the smoke has cleared, my love has not altered.

Perhaps this is why my daughter rolls her eyes so much these days. What could be more ridiculous than someone who positively dotes on you no matter how poorly you treat them?

Oh doormat, thy name is mother!

I studied an awful lot of Shakespeare in my day and I could go on and on. But, right now I have to go do battle with my daughter over why her iTunes are too loud, why her room is too messy, and why a bowl of unbaked cookie dough is not an acceptable homework snack.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Public — and Private — Displays of Affection

"You kiss me too much."

That was my tween daughter as she left the house this morning. You would think that under my roof, having eaten the nutritious breakfast lovingly prepared by my hands, wearing the Abercrombie jeans, Ugg boots and North Face fleece jacket paid for by my toils, she would accept a peck on the cheek.

Apparently ... NOT!

Wait a minute. She's my daughter, the fruit of my loins, the love of my life. How can I possibly kiss her "too much?" Yes, I've already been warned about public displays of affection. But, this is our house. No one is watching. The last time I checked, there were no surveillance cameras in our kitchen. My egregious smack wasn't going to end up on YouTube.

Plus today is an MCAS day. For those of you outside of Massachusetts, MCAS are high-pressure, long-form, standardized tests. Am I wrong in my desire to plant a protective smooch on the face of my little test-taker?

Do I sound jaded? Do I feel cheated? Yes.

Each time one of these habitual gestures is taken away from me, I feel a pang of bereavement, almost a sense of homesickness for a place I used to live. And, these bittersweet moments (heavy on the bitter, less so on the sweet) come without a warning. No one gives you a heads-up that this will be the last time they'll want you to read Good Night Moon, or hold your hand crossing the street, or let you hang out in the bathroom while they're washing up.

It hurts; truly it does. But, I have to confess that I understand what's going on — from a developmental perspective if not a maternal one.

My daughter swings back and forth between girl and woman, not just day-by-day, but multiple times in any 24-hour period. She wants to be her own person. But, she's dependent on me for so much: food, shelter, guidance, discipline, trips to the mall. She thinks she knows everything (everything), but in her heart she knows she knows very little. I remember the frustration of living on the cusp. Eager to make my way in the world but lacking the resources to do it, logistically or emotionally. I try to put myself in her shoes. Quite honestly, I wouldn't want to be thirteen again.

We've taught our daughters and sons that they are in charge of their own bodies. That no one has the right to touch them without their permission. We have to uphold their right to say and mean "No." Even when it really, really, really hurts our feelings.

For now, at any rate, I'll settle for blowing her a kiss behind her back. Please don't tell her. It'll be our little secret.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Math

My daughter has always been good at math. Her third grade teacher told me that no one in the class had their math facts down like she did. She used to race through those "Mad Minutes" at lightning speed. 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds — zero errors.

Mathematically speaking, those were the good ol' days. Middle school math? Well ... not so much.

I'd like to think that it's nice to be needed. Here's a little sample of mother-daughter bonding over algebra ...

ME: So, what are we trying to figure out here?

HER: I don’t know. I hate algebra!

ME: Well, didn’t Mr. A go over this in class?

HER: I don’t know. I hate algebra!!!

ME: Well, are there any sample problems in the textbook?

HER: I don’t know. I HATE ALGEBRA!!!!!

You get the general idea. We finally figured it out (two grilled cheese sandwiches and caffein-free Diet Cokes later — yes, I know I'm a terrible mother). So, she was all set.

But, here's what I wonder about. If my tween daughter dislikes math so much — claims, in fact, that she's "not good" at it — how can she do such complex equations in her head?

ME: Put your phone away.


HER: (v.o. These thoughts are in her head - she's way too smart to say them out loud.) Okay, if Mom says "Put the phone away," I have almost 45 seconds before she says "I mean put the phone away now." In 45 seconds, I can text 3 BFFs — 4 if I don't use vowels, and I never use vowels. I can increase my score on Tap Tap Revenge by at least 10% reaching an all-time high score of more than 20,000. I can order 2 new Ke$ha songs on iTunes and still have $12 left on my birthday iTunes gift card.

ME: I mean put the phone away now.

HER: (v.o. in her head) What? Are you deaf?

ME: What? Are you deaf?

Oh, and in case you didn't notice, my daughter isn't just a mathematician. She's a clairvoyant too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

In the beginning ...

In the beginning ...

When I learned I was expecting, I imagined myself in a flowing Liberty of London print dress sitting in a bucolic field of wild flowers with a tapestry journal in one hand and an antique fountain pen in the other. With classical music in the background, I planned to immortalize every precious moment of pregnancy and motherhood.

As my daughter grew from infant to baby, toddler and little girl, we would have elaborate tea parties, go to the ballet together, play with paper dolls, read children's classics like Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Jane Eyre.

And throughout, I would chronicle her idyllic childhood for posterity.

For one reason or another (or more likely, for hundreds of different and disconnected reasons), I didn't keep that journal. And, it's too bad. Because I've learned so much along the way. My daughter is an excellent teacher.

Lately, I've learned just how many syllables are in the word "Mom." Here's a hint: the answer isn't one. Or two. Or even three.

I've learned what it must be like to gingerly walk across a minefield — that's pretty much how I feel every time I venture into her room.

I've learned what brands are cool (Hollister, Abercrombie, Hard Tail), what brands are not (Justice for Girls, Gap, Old Navy). I've learned how to make my daughter happy (unlimited time on her iPhone) and how to torture her (kiss or hug her "good-bye" when I drop her off at school).

Most recently, I've learned about unrequited love. That you can love someone with all your heart and soul whether they want you to or not.

Thirteen years after my daughter's birth (a mere 14 hours of knee-buckling labor, thank you very much), I finally find that I have time to write again. And what I find I want to write is less about so-called precious moments (art directed by someone from Victoria magazine) and more about the ups and downs, and sheer bewilderment that comes with loving a daughter who is no longer a child but not yet a woman.

Loving the alien.