Monday, May 30, 2011

The Illusion of Control

When my daughter was little, she was a very picky eater. The lunches I packed for preschool consisted of chicken nuggets or chicken nuggets or chicken nuggets or, sometimes, nuggets ... of chicken.

Today, with far more options to choose from, I pride myself on my ability to pack a nice balanced lunchbox. A turkey wrap or ham and cheese sub, fruits and veggies, healthy snacks like roasted pepitos or snap peas, popcorn, crackers or baked chips, and bottled water. Mostly nutritious items but things that my tween daughter likes. And, I don't shy away from adding a dessert. I firmly believe that a couple of cookies or a small piece of chocolate go a long way toward keeping a young person happy as well as healthy.

So imagine my surprise when I picked my daughter up at the stable the other day and found that she had eaten her goldfish crackers and her chocolate-chip cookies but nothing else. "Can we stop at Captain Dusty's Ice Cream on the way home?" she asked. Uh, not.

This is an example of what a friend of mine (a friend with four tween and teen children, God help her) recently called, the Illusion of Control. I may talk a good game. I may pack a mean lunch. But, when push comes to shove, I am not in control here. No way, José.

Because, when it comes to control — or the illusion or (let's face it) the utter lack thereof — an uneaten lunch is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I get a call after school ... "Can I go over to so-and-so's house with you-know-who and whatshisname?" Being a responsible mother, I somberly ask "Will there be an adult there?" "Oh, yes," she assures me. Permission is granted.

Why do I even bother? Am I going to drive over there and check? Even if there is an adult, do I know them? Have I checked to see if he or she has a carbon monoxide detector? Or a criminal record?

I may ask my daughter not to loiter in front of Dunkin' Donuts with the other seventh graders who hang out there (bad seeds, all, trust me). She may promise not to. But, can I ever really be sure? After all, she has to walk right past on her way home. Unless I sneak around in a borrowed car, wig and dark glasses, I'm never going to catch her in the act.

The sad truth is that whether my daughter is honest with me or not, the after school situation, just like the lunchbox situation, is no longer in my control. Neither is what my daughter wears.

If one is a tween, one only wears what is cool. If wearing a jacket is not cool, then the tween will not wear it. (I just knew that high school logic class with Dr. Bumby would come in handy someday.) My daughter may leave with a jacket. She may even leave with the jacket on. But, I'm fairly certain that she will be jacket-free by the time she arrives at the middle school. The same is true for a hat, scarf, mittens, umbrella or boots. It may not be in my control, but it's consistent.

Mine is not the only authority that is undermined. There's a dress code at the school. Tank top straps must be two fingers thick (it occurs to me that two finger measuring will come in handy some day when the middle school girls all become bartenders). Shorts must be long enough that if a girl stands with her arms at her sides, her middle finger reaches fabric not bare skin. This rule, however, doesn't take into account shorts that can be rolled up. In fact, some of the most popular shorts have little straps built right in to assist in the rolling up. So, a girl might pass an impromptu inspection in the cafeteria, but she can always step outside and roll 'em up just as high as she pleases.

So you see, I'm not in control, but neither apparently is the middle school vice principal.

Tween leisure time is yet another area that is no longer in my control. I can buy beautiful editions of Little Women, Jane Eyre, or Pride and Prejudice. They look really nice on my daughter's bookshelf. And, that's a good thing because the bookshelf is pretty much where they're going to stay. The books that will actually be read include such modern classics as the Twilight and Gossip Girl series. She doesn't just read these books; she devours them. Whether I like it or not. At least, I remind myself, she's reading.

When she's not reading, she's making or watching YouTube videos, playing games on her iPhone or schmoozing with her hundreds of friends on Facebook. I've set parental controls and "safe search;" I know her passwords; I do check up on her. But, at the end of the day, her digital life (like her analog life) is largely out of my control.

What to do then when my reality is only an illusion of control? How do I ensure that my un-controllable, although perfectly bright and lovely, tween becomes a productive upright citizen?

Freud proposed that the core of personality is formed by the age of six. (Of course, Freud also believed that all women suffered from penis envy, so what did he know?) A more recent study in New Zealand found evidence that personalities are formed by the age of three.

Guess who was in control when my daughter was three? Me! We can only hope that during my brief totalitarian reign, I gave my daughter a lifetime's worth of ethics, morality, self-discipline and control along with the chicken nuggets.

Lots and lots of chicken nuggets.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Why Words Matter

My tween daughter and I are both enthusiastic Facebook users — although I have to confess that after mere months on the site, she is considerably more popular than I am. She has 326 friends to my mere 299. (Not that I'm counting or anything.)

I know there are many people who use Facebook as a forum for their political beliefs. There are also people who relish a heated debate, who actually thrive on confrontation. I typically do not fall into either category. But earlier this week, I stumbled into one of Facebook's pitfalls. I created my own little social media monster.

My intentions were honorable, really. I had seen what I thought was a beautifully rendered and emotionally affecting public service announcement from the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, as part of their "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign. As a marketer and a mom, I wanted to share it.

If you haven't had an opportunity to see it yet, the spot features a number of people explaining that it's not acceptable to use minority slurs to describe them. The words used are familiar of course but taboo. It's jarring to hear them spoken aloud on video: "nigger," "spic," "chink," "fag," and "kike." Then, the ad moves to the McKinley High music room from Glee, where actors Lauren Potter and Jane Lynch are seated. Potter, who has Down syndrome, explains that "It's not acceptable to call me a retard or call yourself or your friends retarded." Lynch wraps up the spot by explaining that the r-words are the same as any other slur.

When I posted the link, I expected people to watch the spot, to "Like" it and repost it. And, many people did. What I did not expect was to spark a Facebook feud about whether the organizations that created the ad had crossed a line by dictating what words could and could not be used. A friend of mine called it "Censorship" and actually took me to task for agreeing with the ad's message.


Another friend jumped in and passionately and eloquently defended the campaign, while a third friend, who happens to be an attorney, entered the fray with a very intelligent history of how minority descriptors evolve over time. The posts and counter posts have continued for three days. And, I don't know that we've gotten any closer to a consensus (or a so-called winner in this debate). But, I think the reaction (maybe overreaction?) has confirmed something important.

Words matter.

Judging other people, insulting them and making friends laugh is standard middle school cafeteria activity. It's nothing new. I was certainly a victim of it in the 70s, and most likely a victimizer at times as well (I hope not often and not too cruelly). We want to teach our tweens (and teens and adults) to be compassionate people. It's a constant struggle in the dog-eat-dog world of middle school lunch and recess though. As a mom, I actively look for ways to talk about social cruelty, discrimination, and verbal bullying. This spot — and the uproar I started — has confirmed for me that the words we choose have great power and consequence.

If a seventh grader thinks another seventh grader is behaving in a particularly dumb way, he might call them "retarded." "You're such a retard!" (or, pronounced here in Massachusetts, "You're such a retahd!") may be meant as a joke. Clearly, it's not funny to someone like Lauren Potter. It's also not humorous to use a word that has historically been used to define a minority group of people as an insult. I have a feeling that the same kid who uses the word to diss his buddy knows better than to use it to insult an intellectually disabled person. So, he may feel that there's no damage done. I disagree.

Any word that objectifies a group — that effectively turns them into less than individual people — is dangerous. It becomes a lot easier to stereotype, deny rights and discriminate against them.

A similar thing happens with the word "gay." Tweens call an outfit, activity or hobby "so gay," in order to insult it, to imply that it's lame. At an age when some kids are beginning to understand that they or someone they care about is homosexual, this just adds to the potential fear, confusion and shame they have to deal with.

A final example strikes closer to home for me and for my daughter. It has disturbed me for years that males use language that describes females as an insult. So, a football coach might criticize his team's performance by calling them "girls." Or, a teenage boy teases his friend by calling him a "Sally." Or, in a fight, a man threatens to make another man his "bitch." As a woman, this thinly veiled misogyny doesn't just make me mad; it frightens me. What does that say about our worth when the worst thing a man can think of to call another man is "woman?"

I believe that the ad I posted is asking tweens (using the actors from Glee is a great way to reach that audience) to think twice about what they say. Words do matter. And more importantly, the way we choose to use words gives them power and affects how we view people who don't look or act or think like we do.

Censorship or anti-defamation? What do you think?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tween and Phone, Like a Moth to a Flame

I'm a little bit concerned. All right, I'm quite concerned. Any loving parent would be.

My daughter has always been perfectly healthy and generally happy. We've had our ups and downs, our likes and dislikes, our triumphs and disappointments. She went through phases, certainly, but nothing too serious. Short-lived obsessions with a particular board game, the High School Musical DVD, bacon.

I never worried that she was in over her head. That things had gone too far. That she couldn't control herself. Now, everything has changed.

They say that admitting we have a problem is the first step, so here goes ...

My thirteen-year old daughter is an addict.

It's true. My daughter is addicted to her iPhone. Her connection to that slim 4 1/2-inch machine cannot be ignored. It is physical, chemical, emotional. It is bigger than both of us.

And she's not alone — although this doesn't give me much comfort. If I pick her up after "homework club," I see dozens of other girls with smart phones in hand, glued to their screens, thumbs moving miles a minute over minuscule keyboards, breathlessly catching up on everything they've missed while they've been subjected to forced phonelessness in school. These girls are surrounded by other girls, classmates, teammates, friends for years. But they can't be bothered with anything as old-fashioned as a face-to-face conversation.

They need their digital fix. And they need it, bad.

I see the same alone-with-my-phone-in-a-crowd behavior patterns when I'm carpooling. A sedan full of kids used to make for a fairly raucous ride. These days, I can have three tweens in the backseat and another up front, yet my car is surprisingly quiet. A quick glance in the rearview confirms what I already know to be true. The girls are fully engaged ... but not with each other. They're texting, playing games, listening to music, dipping in and out of Facebook or watching YouTube. Some afternoons, I confess, I welcome the peace and quiet. With three or four girls lost in their own cellular worlds, I can relax, unwind, listen to my own music. Which leads me to wonder ...

Am I an iPhone enabler?

Yes, blame it on me. It was my idea to give my daughter her own iPhone for her birthday. But, I had good reasons. She was starting junior high and would be walking to and from school without me every day. My agency had switched over to a group plan which meant I could take advantage of a discounted rate — she could have all the fancy functionality of an iPhone for about the same price as a plain old ordinary mobile. And, she already had my old MacBook so we could synch and share apps and photos and music. At the time, it made a lot of sense. It really did. And, I thought I could control it.

Foolish, foolish woman!

The first few months were fine. The phone was still a much appreciated novelty; it hadn't become a necessary lifeline yet. Then gradually it took on a bigger and bigger role in her life.

We've had rules about the phone all along. It's not supposed to be used before school except for a quick "r u walkn?" exchange between my daughter and a couple of other neighborhood seventh graders. It's not supposed to be used after 8:00 pm. It's not supposed to be used until homework is done. It's not supposed to be in her bedroom overnight. I would say that my daughter is fairly compliant, probably follows the rules more often than not. But, she's a tween and I'm her mom. My authority is ... um ... less than absolute.

Like any addict, my daughter's behavior is not always rational. In the evening, for example, we might be watching TV together. Assuming her phone is charging in the kitchen (where it's supposed to be), she may hear a text message coming in. She knows she isn't supposed to get up and get it, but she suddenly finds it impossible to sit still. Her fingers start to quiver, her eyes dart back and forth across the room. She tries to ignore it, but just as she's refocused on whatever show we're watching, the incoming text signal goes off again. She shoots me a hangdog look of dejected despair and practically leaps to the kitchen in a single bound.

Addiction is an illness, isn't it. How can I get mad at her?

If the phone is off or out of sight, out of mind, we still have to be vigilant. She'll just as quickly pick up my phone or my husband's. I can pretty much guarantee that there are no texts for or about her on my phone (sadly, they're mostly business), but she can't resist. Like a preteen moth to an open flame, she is drawn to any digital device within reach.

If she isn't near the phone she loves, she loves the phone that's near.

So what's a mother to do? Basically, I nag. I tell her, "Get off your phone," and, to her credit, she does. But, her memory is short and the pull of the phone is strong. I say, "Get off your phone," again. I say, "Get off your phone" a couple of dozen times in any 24-hour period.

There's no easy answer. This is one of those works in progress, I'm afraid. But, it's 8:20 pm and right now, I have to wrap this up and head downstairs.

I can pretty much guarantee my daughter's on her phone.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It Doesn't Matter if the Shoes Fit ... As Long as Everyone Else is Wearing Them

"I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
... Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romualdez Marcos

A deposed dictator's wife, her shoe obsession was held up as an indication of an arrogant, self-absorbed lack of regard for the common man. But, let's be honest. Imelda was in good company.

Oprah, Carrie Bradshaw, Victoria Beckham, Danielle Steele, Tina Turner, Kim Kardashian, Barbie. These women, real and imagined, have amassed footwear collections that wouldn't fit in my house much less my closet. These women have woven shoes into their media mythology. They're beautiful. They're rich. They're spoiled. They can, if they choose, take Paul Simon's advice and wear "diamonds on the soles of their shoes." Literally.

I get it; I do. Shoes are a perfect union of function and fashion. They can get us where we need to go — and ensure we turn heads once we get there. The right ones are exquisite little works of art, ornamenting the most mundane parts of our bodies. In fact, there's something symbolic about putting so much money (hundreds or even thousands of dollars) into an accessory that will be scuffed and dragged and scraped along the ground. "No sweat," you're telling the world. "I can afford it, and I'm worth it. 'Don't like it? You can kiss my ... feet."

In this culture, at least, women of all ages, backgrounds and financial means join in the hunt for the perfect pair. You can find as many enthusiastic shoe shoppers in the discount aisles of Marshalls as you can on the plush banquettes at Neiman Marcus.

But, at what age do females become obsessed with shoes? As the mother of a tween, I'm here to tell you it's young, very young, younger than you might think.

I blame Cinderella. How does she win her man? It's not through her smarts, through hard work, through her kindness or her gentle nature. It's not even through her good looks. Cinderella gets the guy because ... the shoe fits. Instant happy ending! Really, why haven't more shoe companies leveraged the whole Cinderella story? Talk about a product placement made in ad agency heaven.

Then, there's Dorothy. Dorothy Gale, remember her? Her ruby slippers were the key to getting an audience with the so-called wonderful wizard and getting back home to her beloved, if colorless, Kansas. One of the original pairs worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie (there were several used during filming), sold at auction in 2000 for $660,000. And, Harry Winston created a tribute pair with 25 karats of genuine diamonds and rubies, valued at $3 million. That's a lot of Milk Bones, Toto!

My daughter had ruby slippers for a few years, although I found them at Target and they cost considerably less than the Winston versions (oh, about $2,999,990 less). Every Christmas, Target displayed bright red glitter slippers and I bought several pairs. They were my daughter's signature look at Sundance Preschool. The girl had style!

Soon, however, the need to conform to her peers became stronger than her desire to look like a movie star. Suddenly, ruby slippers were out and light-up sneakers were in. They were actually pretty cool. Diminutive athletic shoes with lights along the sides and on the soles. Stomp your foot or run through the playground with a particularly heavy gait, and your classmates were treated to an impromptu light show. There were Disney Princess, Teletubbies, Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer options. Stride Rite and other top shelf children's shoemakers had versions of these, but economical moms could find them cheaper.

Then, around third or fourth grade, my daughter and her friends suddenly realized that there were different price points where shoes were concerned. I regret to report that the assumption they made (and we, as adults, seem to make too) was that the more you spend, the more you get, the more worthy you are. Labels became oh so important. The girls didn't want boots; they wanted Uggs. They didn't want sneakers; they wanted Nikes. They didn't want sandals; they wanted Crocs.

Let's talk about Crocs for a minute. My favorite quote comes from my husband. "$40 for rubber shoes? What a crock!" Not only did all the girls need (yes, that would be "need," not "want") Crocs, but they also had to amass a vast collection of "Jibbitz," the clip-on jewels, insignia and characters that adorn them.

(Full disclosure here, I tried a pair of Crocs myself. They were very comfortable, but made my feet dirty. They went on to the local good will in practically perfect condition.)

The other tween brand worth mentioning — and one that is having a longer shoe shelf life than the Croc, which fell out of style halfway through sixth grade — is Ugg. Ugg boots are very warm, very stylish and very very very expensive. There are plenty of sheepskin boots that approximate the look of Uggs, but the girls know which are genuine and which are "fuggs" or "fake Uggs." My daughter is an ardent animal lover and I thought that might convince her to try synthetic fuggs instead. After all, as PETA activist Pamela Anderson finally realized years after pairing the boots with her bathing suit, sheepskin Uggs are made out of ... uh ... sheepskin. (Ms. Anderson set blondes back a bit with that one, I'm afraid.) But, no dice.

(Another confession, I also have a pair of Uggs. They were marked down to $50 at T.J. Maxx and I've had them almost twelve years. I've worn them so many times, and they've been subjected to so much snow and ice and salt, that they are mere shadows of their former selves. My daughter recently sniffed, "Mom, are those supposed to be black?")

So, here's the bottom line. Do I really have the right to criticize my daughter's shoe choices when I've made the same choices myself? Is it fair to think that Crocs and Uggs (or ruby slippers and light-up sneakers) are silly when I have a small but beloved collection of Christian Louboutins (if one pair, splurged upon for a very special family wedding, constitutes a collection)?

At least, I know my daughter and I are not alone. While other apparel categories have seen a decline during the recent recession, shoe sales have actually increased. This is especially true for luxury women's brands like Louboutin, Blahnik and Choo. Is it because of Sex and the City? Or because heels give us an extra lift and we all long to be taller? Or because shoes still fit no matter how many helpings of lasagna we've had?

It's a mystery. But, like mother like daughter. If the shoe fits — and it's pretty and it's on sale and I still have twenty minutes to kill before a lunch meeting — I'll buy it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Driving Miss Daughter

I was born and raised in the greatest show on Earth ... New York, New York. The city so nice they named it twice. In New York, there are myriad ways to get from point A to point B. You can walk, hail a taxi, take a crosstown bus or jump on the subway. Traveling by car is not high on anyone's list. The traffic, the gridlock, the exorbitant parking fees (the exorbitant parking tickets).

New York is many things to many people, but it just ain't a driving town.

Consequently, most people in the Big Apple don't own cars. And, most NYC high schoolers miss out on the rites of passage of their peers in suburban and rural areas. Sweet sixteens come and go without learner's permits or driver's ed.

This boggles my husband's mind. To this day, one of his favorite things to tease me about (and to tell anyone within hearing) is that I didn't get a driver's license until I was 28. But, even at that ripe old age, I beat several of my hometown friends.

In my book, driving was, is and will always be a necessary evil.

So, imagine my surprise when I realized that "Driver" is one of the many jobs I've picked up over the years. Please note: I say, "Driver" and not "Chauffeur." I am not paid, I am not treated with respect. I do not get a cool little bachelor pad over the garage or a spiffy uniform. There's no soundproof glass between me and my passengers. Oh, how I sometimes wish there were!

The passengers are typically my tween daughter and one or more of her cohorts. Destinations vary. I might be driving to and from school because of weather, to a movie, to a party, to the Y, to the mall. Most of the time, I'm driving to and from the stable where my daughter rides. When I was her age, I was very comfortable coming and going via New York's public transportation system. I was independent. Living where we live, my daughter unfortunately is not. She needs me if she is going to go anywhere.

You would think this would make her want to stay on my good side, wouldn't you? Ha ha.

When she was younger, my daughter and I used to enjoy car rides together. Or, at least I did and she hadn't realized how uncool I was yet, so she did too. She'd fill me in on the latest grammar school gossip. We'd stop for popcorn at an old honky-tonk arcade in the next town over. We'd play Broadway show albums and sing along at high volume and less than accurate pitch.

These days, my daughter is otherwise engaged. She is either otherwise engaged with her iPhone or otherwise engaged with her friends. And, while I used to take advantage of car time to talk with her, I've realized that the quickest way for a tween's mom to shut down a tween conversation is to attempt to participate. So, now I just keep my mouth shut and drive. Sometimes they forget I'm there and I actually overhear interesting tidbits about who said what, who did what, or who likes who. I have to be careful though ... one well-meaning question and they clam up, fast.

They do occasionally acknowledge my presence though, and I guess I should be thankful for that. Let's see ... they often ask me to turn up the volume on the radio if there's a song they like. Or to stop at McDonald's for an Oreo McFlurry. See? I'm not completely invisible.

Sometimes, when I'm waiting at a red light or sitting at a train crossing, I find myself asking, like David Byrne of the Talking Heads, "How did I get here?" Have the girls in the backseat seen my impressive resumé? Do they know that I graduated from an excellent university, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa? Do they realize that I actually had a fairly interesting life before they were born?

Do they understand that I was just like them once — thirteen years old and the center of the universe?

At at no point did I ever think, "When I grow up, I hope I can spend all of my limited discretionary time driving my daughter and her friends and a carload of smelly horse tack back and forth to a distant stable with Taylor Swift's insipid (and literarily inaccurate) 'Romeo and Juliet' on the radio."

But, can I tell you the funny thing about it. For the past several weeks, my work schedule has been significantly busier than my husband's. So, he kindly volunteered to take over the stable route on Tuesday afternoons. The strategy worked. I've met some tight deadlines; I've had more time to work with my team; my clients are all happy.

Next week, my husband has a meeting in town and won't be back in time. So, I'll have to wrap up everything at my agency early and get a whole day's worth of work delivered by 2:30 or so. I'll have to load all the stinky tack in the trunk, collect my daughter and her fellow equestriennes, drive 40 minutes north to the riding center, wait in the car for 90 minutes, then drive 40 minutes back.

Y'know what? I'm kinda looking forward to it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pity the Foo'

As a blogger, a modern-day memoirist, it's tempting to write about one's spouse. After all, I've been married (most days, happily so) for more than nineteen years. That makes for plenty of material. When I'm tempted to complain or make fun of my husband, however, I remind myself that he is in an utterly unenviable position. He is on a familial tightrope; his home is a minefield. And, as long as I'm mixing metaphors here, he is stuck smack between a rock and the proverbial hard place.

My husband has a daughter going through puberty and a wife going through menopause ... at the same time!

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Ever since we brought our daughter home from the hospital, my husband's been in the minority. (The dog is a male, granted, but weighing in at 10 and 1/2 pounds, he's a little low on the macho quotient.) Until fairly recently, being the only guy wasn't too terrible. It meant sitting through dance recitals instead of going to hockey games, watching Disney princess movies instead of action adventures. He never seemed to mind though. There's actually a very special bond between a devoted daddy and his darling little girl.

Then ... the hormones kicked in.

Suddenly, everything's a drama. The highs got higher; the lows got lower. Much higher and much lower. Simple decisions like what to wear to school took on life or death proportions. Tried and true friendships became terrifically complicated. Drama, drama, drama. We were a happy family and then one day, bam! Puberty hit us. Puberty hit us hard.

As if that wasn't enough, at the same time, I was going through my own roller coaster of hormonal change. Here are just a handful of the swings my husband has had to deal with:

Temperature Swings
I'm hot. I'm cold. I'm hot. I'm cold. My internal thermostat went on the fritz about five years ago. On a good day, I average about a half dozen hot flashes. Unlike some of my friends, I don't sweat or turn red, fortunately. But, it's still disconcerting to be in a meeting or at the dinner table and feel like my insides are on fire. I've tried soy supplements. No luck. Cutting out caffein. No luck. Dressing in layers. No luck. I've tried thinking of the flashes as little private beach vacations. No f*cking luck, dammit!

Standing with my face in the open freezer door seems to help for a few minutes. As does falling asleep with my face ten inches from the air conditioner. Then, I get cold and have to go get an extra blanket. This process only repeats itself six or seven times a night. My husband, who loves his nine hours of beauty sleep, really appreciates the routine.

Mood Swings
If you think wearing the wrong outfit can drive my daughter to tears, you should see what a Hallmark ad can do to me. Especially the ones with grandparents who miss their grandchildren and then get all teary because the grandchildren sent them some schmaltzy "I miss you" card. Or the ad where the kid comes home from college and his little sister is all excited to see him so they make coffee together. Or pretty much any ad with babies. Or puppies. Or a school bus.

When I'm not singing the blues, I have a whole repertoire of other emotions to experience. Impatience and frustration are right up there. And, stress isn't too far behind.

Weight Swings
These days, when I'm not whining, I'm wining. When asked, I describe myself as a "social drinker." This just happens to be a very social time of my life. Oh, and I also self-medicate with chocolate. Actually, it's not that I eat and drink more than I did when I was young. It's just that my metabolism seems to have changed — and not for the better, I'm afraid. Putting weight on is much faster. Taking weight off is much slower. But, not to worry. A friend recently told me that once you're over forty you're allowed to wear those bathing suits with skirts. I'm not quite there ... yet.

At least, I tell myself, I'm not at my absolute heaviest. Really, I weighed more than this once. It was late in my third trimester, but still ...

Back to my husband. He is often bewildered by the internal battles raging inside his tween daughter. After all, unlike me, he hasn't been there, done that. And, I'm sure he doesn't appreciate my turning the heat off in the middle of winter, or snapping at him, or bitching and moaning about how tight my jeans are. He is remarkably even-keeled in the face of all this fluctuating estrogen. He hasn't moved out. He hasn't taken a mistress. He hasn't even bought a sports car.

So the next time I'm tempted to express dissatisfaction or annoyance with my other half, I'll try to remember to give him the credit he's due.

Then, I'll go pour myself a nice tall glass of wine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Facebook: Friend or Frenemy?

I'm the first to admit it. These are tough times to be raising a tween. But, I'm always surprised when my fellow moms behave like ostriches.

Let me give you an example ...

We are very lucky that my daughter's middle school sponsors an informative "Family Center" series with invited speakers on such topics as "Balancing Homework and Sports," "Raising a Resilient Child," or the always popular "Don't Panic, It's Just Puberty."

Recently, we had guest speakers from the county district attorney's office and a university research center for teen aggression. They came to talk to us about "Online Safety." Clearly, the topic was timely; the room was fairly packed with worried and white-knuckled parents. I don't mean to sound flippant. The issues are real, of course. There are criminals, pedophiles and sex offenders who prey on young people online. Far more common are instances of cyber bullying by peers, and we've all seen the headlines about some truly tragic consequences. A lot of these incidents begin on popular social networking sites, like Facebook.

None of this surprised me. What did surprise me was how many parents thought they could keep their kids safe by ignoring the whole thing.

"My daughter's not on Facebook!" one mother announced.

"Facebook is the devil," asserted another.

"We. Simply. Don't. Allow. It."

The guest speaker asked, "How many of your children have Facebook pages." Just about a quarter of the attendees raised their hands, a bit sheepishly I might add. The speaker shook his head. "I can pretty much guarantee that the real number is at least double that, probably triple." It turns out that millions, literally millions, of tweens post pages on Facebook without their parents' permission or knowledge. Virtually all middle school kids have played around on Facebook at a friend's house if it's not allowed in their own. Needless to say, my fellow parental units were none too happy to hear this.

As my daughter might say ... "Clue phone, it's for you!" Really, were these other parents living under a rock? Do they honestly think they can police their child's every move? Even if you have the strictest rules, state-of-the-art PC parental controls, or don't even own a computer ... chances are, your little darling has been exposed to the wonderful world of Facebook at someone else's house, at the library or even on a phone. Because, let's not kid ourselves. Those smart phones aren't just for calling and texting; they're fully-functioning palm-sized computers with access to the Internet and parents' enemy number one: Facebook.

But, I'd rather not look at Facebook as the big bad. In today's world, it's simply out there. Like traffic or unwashed fruit. As modern parents, I think we can teach our kids how to negotiate it safely. In fact, I'd rather be involved in giving my tween daughter some Internet savvy than pretend she doesn't need it. And, Facebook is a fairly easy place to start.

Despite much lobbying on her part, I waited to let my daughter join Facebook until she turned thirteen. This, by the way, is the minimum age allowed by the site itself. But, we all know how easy it is to fudge your age. After all ... "On the Internet, no one knows you're a tween." I waited, not because I was terribly worried about what would happen to her on the dreaded social network, but because I think that as a parent I should instill a respect for rules. I also believe that it doesn't serve anyone for me to just give in every time she discovers a new toy, new technology or new media channel. I'd like to think I'm teaching my daughter patience. I know I'm pacing things for my own sanity.

So she enthusiastically joined Facebook on her thirteenth birthday. I offered to help her set it up. Who was I kidding? Within minutes, she was not only up and running, she had dozens of "friends." Clearly, she had been practicing elsewhere.

Of course, I set up some ground rules:

1. She had to "friend" me. Not just me, but my entire network of loving spies: my mother, my sister, my business partners, my roommate from college.

2. She had to provide me with her user name and password. She is fully aware that I may check up on her at any time. This was unequivocally the cost of entry.

3. She had to promise never to post anything off color about herself or cruel about anyone else. I reminded her then (and still do fairly frequently) that nothing you post is private. And, everything you post is permanent. Just ask one of those idiot adults who lost a job, political office or grad school scholarship because of something they posted one intoxicated evening.

4. And, finally, she had to use full sentences, proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.

All right, I confess that this last rule was fairly unrealistic — actually utterly hopeless — from the beginning. But a middle-aged English major can try, can't she? Oh well ...

Spelling (or lack thereof) aside, we have had very few issues, I am happy to report. There have been a handful of occasions when my daughter has "Liked" an inappropriate page. And, I have been soundly reprimanded for calling her "munch" (short for "munchkin," I'm embarrassed to tell you) in a post on her wall. Otherwise, Facebook has given us (and our extended family and friends) a chance to catalog vacations and horse shows, share photos and anecdotes, enjoy memories and birthday wishes. I feel I know my daughter's friends a bit better thanks to their posts.

And, I will happily embrace any medium that keeps me connected to what's going on in her life as it begins to separate itself from mine.

Facebook is no more inherently evil than a telephone or a note passed in class. It's how you and your tween use it that matters. For this particular mom, making "friends" with Facebook has made a lot of sense.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Instant Gratification

A couple of years ago, I read an interesting article about little kids and their ability to postpone gratification. It was in the New Yorker, which means that it was well-researched and extremely well-written. The point of the story was that one of the most accurate predictors of future success is a child's ability to wait for what he or she wants.

In the study referenced in the article, children were given a treat — a marshmallow, I think. They were told that they could go ahead and eat it, or if they waited they would get two marshmallows. Then they were left alone ... alone with the marshmallow. You can probably guess how most of the stories ended.

I guess one marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush.

After reading this, I couldn't help but wonder how my daughter would fare in such a test. She's bright and determined, and she would certainly see the benefit of waiting. But then again, she has an insatiable sweet tooth. (Um, that would be one of the traits I wish she hadn't picked up from moi.) And, like all of her friends, she is the product of an age that seems to place a lot more emphasis on instant gratification than self-discipline.

Self-discipline is tough. It's tough for people my age let alone for tweens. I'm sure this was true thirty years ago, but it seems especially true today. And, its no wonder. With smart phones and PCs, kids have instant access to information, media, entertainment, shopping and each other. Working on a research paper? No need to bike over to the library; the biggest library in the world is right on their desktop. Want a new outfit? They can find exactly what they're looking for and buy it (with their mother's credit card, mind you) in less time than it would take to find a parking spot at the local mall. Feel like going to a movie? No need. Between DVDs, DVRs, and "Instant Queue" Netflix, today's young audience members can pretty much see what they want, when they want, and as many times as they want.

When did we all become so impatient?

Growing up in the 60s and 70s (ouch, that hurts), I had considerably less control over my entertainment. Each Christmas special was only on one night in December. If you happened to have Nutcracker tickets when Rudolf was showing, you were out of luck that year. Similarly,The Wizard of Oz was shown on TV annually and it was a very big deal; the entire family sat down to see it together. On a more regular basis, if you were devoted to a favorite show (The Partridge Family in fourth grade and Happy Days in seventh come to mind), you scheduled other activity around it. When my father brought home our first VCR, we were thrilled. It was a Betamax and weighed about 40 pounds.

Being patient wasn't limited to entertainment either. Long distance calls were expensive, so you only talked to your out of town family on major holidays. When we went away each summer, we waited — albeit a bit over eagerly — for my dad's weekly call from New York City. We lined up in my grandmother's dining room and took turns filling him in on the week's adventures. This process didn't change much when I went away to college; I phoned my parents about once a week and we kept the calls brief. The rest of the time, we wrote letters (gasp!). Or at least they did. I sort of stopped when I found my first serious boyfriend right before sophomore year. But, that's another story.

These days, local, toll and long distance calls are all pretty much the same. I have friends and relatives with kids away at college who talk, text and Skype multiple times a day. On the one hand, it probably makes the empty nest feel a little less empty. On the other hand, it isn't giving anyone a chance to learn about independence, or to synthesize or edit information before they share it. "How can I miss you when you won't go away?"

It's easy for me to shake my head and say "Tsk, tsk." The truth is, when my daughter leaves for college in just a few short years, I'm quite certain that I will be glued to my phone, eagerly waiting every call or text she sends my way.

Still, it makes me wonder. What will become of us when all these impatient little people are big people? By the time my daughter is a young adult, will the world have changed so much that instant gratification is valued above the rewards of diligent study or thoughtful strategy? Will the future belong to those who can not only see it coming ... but can access it digitally in under .05 seconds?

We'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Swimsuit Shopping or Nightmare in the Dressing Room

The days are getting longer. The weather's getting warmer. Soon, the beaches in our town will fill with families having fun and they'll open up our pool. This can only mean one thing ...

'Time to shop for a bathing suit!

If I knew how to embed sound into my blog, this is where I would insert the eery tinkling soundtrack from Halloween. Or maybe John Williams' famous theme song from Jaws. That might be more appropriate.

Ladies, truly, is there anything more frightening than trying on bathing suits? Oh, the horror! The horror!

Recently, my tween daughter asked if I would take her to buy a new swimsuit. Did she need one? Absolutely not. Did I say, "Yes?" Absolutely! The way I look at it, she only has a few years to enjoy choosing, trying on and buying a bathing suit. After that? Well, I've already explained how I — and every other grown woman I know — feel about it.

Up until now, it was easy to buy swimsuits for my daughter. She had 1-pieces and 2-pieces, racer backs, halter tops, flirty little suits with skirts. The fit wasn't a big concern; whatever I chose simply had to be small enough to stay on and big enough that she wouldn't get a wedgie. I didn't have to worry about how a suit would slide over her curves because, quite frankly, she didn't have any yet.

Contrast this with how I feel every time I realize that I need a new swimsuit. The dread in my gut as I head to the store. The garish dressing room lighting in which my winter skin becomes ghostly white, and every dimple on my cheeks (I'm not talking about the cheeks on my face, friends) becomes a crater the size of the grand canyon. And, let's not forget the ridiculous prices. Seriously, it's not unusual for a suit to cost $125 or more these days. For a piece of spandex in which you feel downright unattractive?

'Talk about adding insult to injury!

I remember the last time I felt slim and confident in a bathing suit. It was right after an 8-month battle with a severe bacterial infection in my GI track, one of those nasty "super bugs" you can pick up in the hospital. I lost 35 pounds and felt like death warmed over. But, man oh man, I looked good in my tankini.

More recently, I found a 1-piece with a flattering surplice top, the kind that crosses over and maximizes what you want it to maximize (and minimizes what you want it to minimize). It had a silly name that some copywriter had come up with: "Slimtastic" or "Slimplification" or "Slimply You." It's not that I felt particularly good in said suit. But, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I expected to. So, I bought it ... I bought it in every color.

Back to my darling daughter. Off we went to the mall to look for swimsuits. She wanted a "real bikini," the kind that looks like three little triangles held together with strings. Browsing through freshly stocked swimwear departments was a pleasure I have long forgotten if indeed I've ever known it. Virtually everything we picked up looked fantastic on her. If something was a bit too tight, she asked what I thought and I told her. We either moved on to another suit or went to find a larger size. No self-recrimination, no desperate vows to diet, no fleeting thoughts of liposuction, no drama.

We ended up with two cute bikinis, one from Kohls and one from Pac-Sun. They had just the right amount of fabric and showed just the right amount of skin. They were sexy but not sleazy. One of them had a reversible top, so we agreed that it was a good deal because we were really getting two suits for the price of one. My daughter looked, and more importantly felt, great in them.

Clearly, when it comes to swimwear departments the current retail system is set up to satisfy thirteen-year olds with their trimmer bodies and not-yet-damaged egos. Here's my suggestion if stores would like their 40-something customers to feel as good (and, consequently, buy as many new suits) ...

Schedule after-hours "girls night out" events. Play soft, relaxing music. Cover the full-length mirrors with flattering, gauzy fabric. Offer a complimentary spray-on tan and dim the lights in the dressing room. And last but not least, ply the customers with extra-strong umbrella drinks.

Yep. The extra-strong umbrella drinks would definitely be the key.