Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's The Matter With Adults These Days?

I've heard that there are some very informative and entertaining morning shows on TV.

Personally, I wouldn't know.

You see, from the moment I get up until my daughter is safely out the door, I don't sit down. There's breakfast to be made, lunch to be packed, homework to be nagged about, dress code to be double checked. There are plenty of last minute firedrills too ... "I can't find any clean gym shorts." Or "Can you proofread and print my 10-page science report?"

My husband does, from time to time, clue me in on any news he thinks is ... well ... newsworthy. These include hardcore journalism subjects like the arts, book reviews, fashion week, guest appearances by my favorite performers. But, this morning, he recorded a Today Show segment that I found particularly upsetting.

The story focused on Internet gossip in a small Missouri town. Not just any town, but Mountain Grove, where my mother grew up and where my sister, brother and I spent many of our childhood summers. According to reporter Kevin Tibbles, a number of residents there have been targeted with vicious gossip on a website called Topix. And, it is tearing up the community.

Mountain Grove is located about an hour from Springfield in the southern part of the state. Its population is 4,500 people, up by about 25% from the Mountain Grove I knew in the 1960s and 70s. The town's small size was only one of the features that made it such a contrast to my home in New York City.

We lived in a high rise in midtown Manhattan with a terrace, elevators and a doorman. But, in the summers, we enjoyed a different set of amenities. My grandmother's house on West First Street had big yards, front and back, a robust vegetable garden, an attic in which to play dress-up, and a cellar filled with canned peaches and pickles. We used to boast that we had the best of both worlds. Sophisticated city living during the school year, and clean country air and bare feet in July and August. And, one of the biggest differences was the anonymity of the big apple compared to the "everybody knows your name" feeling of small town America.

Well, it appears that some of the people in Mountain Grove not only know each other's names but have chosen to smear them online. The Today story included a woman who was accused of running a sex club and another who has been called "a whore with AIDS" and is planning to move away as soon as she can.

It's important to point out that the entire town is not participating. But, Topix, which claims to be the leading news community on the Web, "connecting people to the information and discussions that matter to them in every U.S. town and city," does have over 500 users in its Mountain Grove forum. Do some quick math and you realize that it's a significant percentage of the town's adults.

And, that's what troubles me most. We are talking about adults. When my daughter and her friends get into a little trouble online (and, believe me, they do — although, thankfully, nothing too serious), I chalk it up to immaturity and inexperience. We discuss what's appropriate — and what's not — frequently. My daughter would roll her eyes and say, "Yeah, way too frequently." The lessons I try to teach are also being echoed by school principals and guidance counselors. I always assume that she'll get through the troublesome tween years and grow into a respectful cyber citizen someday.

But, maybe I shouldn't be so confident. Look at the examples out there. Not just the mean-spirited posters in Mountain Grove — who I firmly believe are just a small if vocal minority of its citizens and whose behavior is in no way unique to that town. But, what about popular celebrities and our elected officials? There are too many scandals and far too many news stories about inappropriate tweeting, texting and emailing. Whatever happened to privacy? And good manners? And spelling?

Kids will be kids. In my day and age, pre-caller I.D., we made crank phone calls. We could be mean. There were certainly bullies. Gossip is nothing new, but even the most salacious whispered tidbit didn't circulate the way an online observation can today. We all know this. In theory, we all agree that it's a terrible thing. But, the bad behavior continues to grow and to get attention. I had never heard of Topix before this morning. If I want to start a nasty rumor, I know just where to go.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim wrote a poignant and very intelligent song for his musical Into the Woods, called "Children Will Listen." In it, he warns that we have to be careful of the things we do because children will look to us as models. They listen (sometimes), but more importantly they observe.

Let's hope that when it comes to living life out loud online, my daughter's generation will do as we say, and not as we do.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hot Child in the City

After spending two summers in Connecticut, my daughter tried a new riding camp in Vermont this year. The cross-country course was better. The food was worse. The cabins were better. The activities were worse. The other girls?


But, all good things come to an end, and a three-week eventing program is no exception. Parents arrived Saturday, watched their daughters compete in a three-phase show, stayed overnight nearby while the girls had an awards banquet, and before you could say "I'm gonna miss you so-o-o-o-o-o-o-o much," it was all over. Back to their separate lives in their separate states.

But, not to worry. This is 2011 after all. The girls became instantaneous Facebook friends. And after much texting, "poking," instant messaging and picture-posting, it was unanimously decided that a camp reunion was in order.

Several of my daughter's aforementioned "besties" live in the greater New York City area (New Jersey and Westchester county), so, the big apple would be the ideal place to meet. Although we're up in Massachusetts, I'm always game for a trip to my hometown. Grandma's bed and breakfast was available, so we set the date and a whirlwind of planning commenced.

Anyone who knows me will assure you that I am the queen of theme. So, I took it upon myself to come up with some ideas for this shindig.

"What if you all meet at the Central Park carousel?" I asked.

Blank stare. I kept going. "Horses? Y'know, horses? You guys all love horses?"

"Oh-h-h, that's a go-oo-od idea. Yeah. Uh-huh. I'll think about it." my daughter answered. From experience, I recognized this as "Lamest idea ever, Mom. I don't think so."

"Too bad the "Horse" exhibit isn't at the Museum of Natural History anymore," I continued.

"No offense, Mom ..." she began.

Time out. When my daughter says "No offense, Mom ..." I steel myself for something offensive. It reminds me of the line "With all due respect ..." as used in The Sopranos. Whenever one of the underlings started a statement, "With all due respect ..." you always knew they were about to disrespect Tony. And, Tony didn't react well to disrespect if you remember. Blood, guts, gore ... not well at all. Suffice it to say that my daughter is just lucky I'm a copywriter and not a mafia boss.

"No offense, Mom. But I don't think they're gonna want to hang in a museum."

I realized she was probably right, and promised to keep thinking. Meanwhile, one of her friends (who is clearly a better party planner than I am!), came up with an inspired and exacting itinerary. It went something like this:

12:30 Arrive Times Square, Meet at Forever 21
12:30 - 1:15 Shop at Forever 21
1:15 Walk to Abercrombie
1:30 - 2:15 Shop at Abercrombie
2:15 Frozen Yogurt Break
2:30 Walk to American Eagle Outfitters
2:45 - 3:30 Shop at American Eagle Outfitters
3:30 Walk to Italian Restaurant on 46th Street
4:00 Early Dinner Reservation
6:00 (Tearful) Good-bye

The girls were thrilled. Me? Not so much.

"Okay," I said. "So you and your friends are going to rendezvous in the greatest city in the world and you're going to spend your time in ... mall stores?"

She grinned and nodded enthusiastically.

Best advice I ever heard back when she was going through the terrible twos? "Choose your battles." This field trip of tween consumerism was not a battle I chose to choose. "Fine," I said.

At the appointed hour, we arrived at that historic New York landmark, Forever 21. There was much screaming and hugging and flinging one's tweenage self into each other's arms as the girls reunited. The moms introduced ourselves and wondered aloud at our daughters' enthusiasm and their determination to make this all happen.

The afternoon was a huge success. BESTEST DAY EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not only did each participant acquire new tee shirts and socks and jewelry and makeovers (Sephora happens to be right next to Forever 21 - OMG! Can you believe it?), but they had photos taken with a real ... wait for it, wait for it ... Abercrombie model!

"He should pull his pants up," I responded when my daughter proudly displayed her picture that evening at my mother's.

"Good one Mom," she chuckled. "Hellooo? He's an Ab-er-crom-bie model." She put the picture in her pocket and headed into the kitchen to hunt for snacks.

Famed New York Times reporter Meyer Berger once said, "Each man reads his own meaning into New York." Clearly, each mother-daughter team does too. For me, New York will always mean Broadway theatre and magnificent museums and incredible people-watching and long walks in Central Park. I've shared so many of these things with my daughter already. But, as she grows up, she'll find her own reasons to love the city so nice, they named it twice.

Spending the BESTEST DAY EVER with a crew of beloved friends isn't a bad place to start.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Like Daughter Like Mother?

When I had my daughter in 1997, I asked all the cool artsy urban friends I had collected over the years to help me stay cool and artsy and urban. I was thrilled to be a mother but a little afraid that I would suddenly become a stereotype. Y'know, a modern-day Stepford wife.

"Please," I urged them, "If you ever catch us in mother-daughter Lilly Pulitzer dresses, stage an intervention."

There was no reason to fear. Short of one matching pajama set (extremely cute flannel Nick and Nora pj's with sock monkeys on them), my daughter and I have never been interested in looking like two peas in a pod. She wears orange or lime green or bright red. I wear black or black or black (hey, I'm from New York). She wears tight jeggings or jodhpurs. I wear flowing yoga pants. She wears bikinis. I wear one-pieces. When it comes to our taste in clothes (like our taste in radio stations, snack foods, and popular fiction), I'm happy to report that the generation gap remains unbridged.

It doesn't bother me that my daughter is uninterested in emulating my style. (Most likely, if you asked her, she would roll her eyes as if to say, "What style?") And, I am certainly not trying to look her age. Sure, I would love to be thinner and younger; I would love to wear skinny jeans. But, they would be my skinny jeans, not hers. There's a good reason why the company NYDJ, "Not Your Daughter's Jeans," can charge over $100 a pair. Those of us who are no longer 20 (or 30 or even 40) are built differently.

My daughter and her friends are devoted to the latest trend. It's not so much that they want to be individuals yet; they actually want to look exactly alike. But, they definitely don't want to look like their dear old moms. This was recently reinforced in a study released by Temple University's Fox School of Business. Researchers surveyed 343 mother-daughter pairs. The average mother was 44; the average daughter 16. (This makes the average mother a little younger than yours truly, and the average daughter a little older than mine.)

The study indicated that when it comes to fashion, daughters were not influenced by the mothers. (Duh.) But a surprising number of mothers were influenced by their daughters. They termed these moms, "consumer doppelgängers." These women look to their teens for guidance on the latest styles and make-up. As the study's author Ayalla Ruvio explains, "Mimicking her daughter is like a shortcut to what is hip and cool."

Uh-oh. Now I guess I know why I'm not hip and cool — I have lots of issues with my daughter's choice of clothing. These should sound familiar to many moms. Low-cut jeans are cut too low. Short shorts are just too short. Bra straps belong inside not outside. Flip-flops do not a pair of party shoes make. But, generally speaking, my daughter is presentable if not downright cute when left to her own devices.

That said, even if I could fit into her Hollisters, I wouldn't want to. (If I could fit into Heidi Klum's mom jeans? Now, that's another story.)

When we go to the mall together (and these trips have increased along with my offspring's awareness of the benefits of retail therapy), we hit all the teen hot spots: Forever 21, Abercrombie, Hollister, American Eagle. But, the only person walking out with a purchase is my daughter. In exchange, I get a few minutes at Chico's, Talbots and J. Jill. More my size, my colors, my style (for what that's worth). I consider this a win-win. Trying to squish my 49-year old thighs into "Super Distressed Super Skinny Jeans" designed for someone who hasn't hit puberty yet? I think I'll pass.

And, that's okay with my daughter too. While the girls surveyed in the Temple study were proud if their mothers look attractive and stylish, it's embarrassing if the moms are obviously trying to look younger. So, there's no need for me to try and dress any age other than my own.

I embarrass my daughter enough without trying.

For another perspective on the Temple University study, read Dr. Ford's essay in Women's Voices for Change.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Morning Glory

"Good mornin', good mornin'!"

Y'know the scene in Singin' in the Rain when Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor realize that their evening was so late ... it's early? They've pulled an all-nighter figuring out how to transform the silent movie The Dueling Cavalier into the talkie The Dancing Cavalier. With their problem solved, they realize that the sun is already on its way up — which, this being an MGM musical, gives them yet another reason to sing and dance. It's a famous and memorable sequence in a well-loved Hollywood classic.

It's also a terrific way to torture your tween. Trust me.

You see, I am my daughter's alarm clock, among the many many (thankless, overworked, underpaid) jobs I have. Don't get me wrong; she has a clock. She has a clock that she picked out herself two years ago. She has a clock that has a brightly lit display in which every digit is a different fluorescent color. She has a clock that has an alarm so loud and so shrill that I can hear it three rooms down the hall even if I'm in the shower.

Unfortunately, my daughter, an otherwise normal and healthy young woman, is apparently deaf and blind at 6:30 in the morning. Which is why yours truly must take on the role of said clock. She sleeps right through the alarm. However ... she can't sleep through me.

When she was little, I couldn't wait to wake her up. She was a good sleeper and she was always sweet and cheerful in the mornings. She was happy to get up. She was happy to see me. We typically snuggled a few minutes before choosing an outfit (that we actually agreed about, imagine that!) and starting our day together. Since I worked full-time in a city an hour away, those minutes we had together before I dropped her off at daycare were particularly precious to me. To both of us, I think.

Well ... suffice it to say that mornings are different now. Like everyone else her age, my daughter can't seem to get enough sleep. We've tried earlier bedtimes. But, she has too much homework and too many activities (and, between you and me, too many friends with Facebook accounts) to get to bed any sooner than she already does.

Of course, the problem, she insists is that school starts too early. Not that she's staying up too late. (Nah, going to bed late and getting up early couldn't possibly be related, right? Those two factors could never turn a perfectly normal tween into a stark-raving, fire-breathing, head-spinning little monster, could they? Didn't think so.)

Here's our new routine. "Good morning, sweetie," I offer cheerfully.

She doesn't move.

I walk in and open all the blinds. Her room has seven windows on three walls; when the blinds are open, it is b-r-i-g-h-t. I adjust the bedspread and the covers and her stuffed animals (mostly horses but a few squirrels — I'm really not sure why), all of which are now on the carpet.

She doesn't move.

By now, I'm feeling some pressure. Let's see, I still need to make breakfast, pack lunch, double check that all homework is complete and in the backpack, get a sense of any after school plans, start my own day. So, I begin coaxing, then coercing, then nagging, then threatening.

And, if at any point, I really want to make her cringe, I sing ...

Good mornin', good mornin'!
We've talked the whole night through,
Good mornin', good mornin' to you.
Good mornin', good mornin'!
It's great to stay up late.
Good mornin', good mornin' to you!

I never have to sing it twice.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The 12 Days of Eighth Grade

My daughter's school sends out a list of suggested supplies every summer. It's a nice gesture, and in theory it should make things easier on the middle school moms.

But, this year (as in virtually all years past), the list was not as comprehensive as we would have hoped. Unanticipated items (and unexpected trips to Staples, CVS, Target and the like) have been pretty much a daily occurrence.

Some are requests from individual teachers, some are the latest fad that somehow emerged over the summer, some are just life's little necessities when you're thirteen going on grownup.

Here's what I'm talking about ...

On the first day of eighth grade my daughter told me, "Yo, I need $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the second day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need two more loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the third day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need three pairs of gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the fourth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need four smelly markers, three pairs of gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the fifth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the sixth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the seventh day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the eighth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need eight permission slips signed, seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the ninth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need nine Japanese erasers, eight permission slips signed, seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the tenth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need ten Fruit Roll-Ups, nine Japanese erasers, eight permission slips signed, seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the eleventh day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need eleven horse-shaped Silly Bandz, ten Fruit Roll-Ups, nine Japanese erasers, eight permission slips signed, seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks and $5 for a Frappuccino."

On the twelfth day of eighth grade my daughter told me "Yo, I need twelve Ticonderoga pencils, eleven horse Silly Bandz, ten Fruit Roll-Ups, nine Japanese erasers, eight permission slips signed, seven friendship bracelets, six book covers, five Post-it pads, four smelly markers, three gym shorts, two loose leaf notebooks ...

and $5 for a Frappucino."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dumbing Down

"Girls go to college to get more knowledge.
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider."

This was one of my daughter's favorite rhymes when she was in preschool. We thought it was pretty funny.

She thought it was hi-lar-i-ous.

Back then, there was no question at all about whether girls were as smart as boys (my daughter and her friends knew they were). They learned to read and write and add and subtract side-by-side. Gender differences showed up in the playground, but there was no sense that being a good student made you any more or less feminine.

In primary school, my daughter quickly achieved a reputation for being a math wiz. Her first grade numbers scroll reached an unprecedented length; she solved more (and more difficult) equations than her peers in "mad minutes," and did so with time to spare. In fourth grade, she was selected to participate in an engineering class that was sponsored by Lego Robotics. She and a classmate invented, built and presented an amusement park ride called the "Barf-o-nator 3000."

Sniff, sniff, I was so proud!

Now as an eighth grader, my daughter is in her fifth year of accelerated math. Always an excellent student, she should be on course for more of the same. So, why am I getting worried? It isn't that I think her skills will diminish. In fact, I absolutely refuse to abide by the myth that girls are naturally better at verbal subjects and boys are naturally better at math and science. I know far too many exceptions to that rule, and I myself scored much higher on my math SATs even though I preferred English and Drama and pursued them as majors in college.

Instead, I'm concerned about the gender stereotypes that are still so prevalent in our society and that influence what girls choose to do — and how well they do in what they choose.

According to the National Science Foundation, fourth grade girls and boys are about equally attracted to the subject of science: 66% and 68%. But, at the same time, when asked to draw a scientist, most depict a white male. Any drawings of women scientists are unattractive and sour. By eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in careers in science than girls are. And, that unhappy trend continues through high school and college.

There are a lot of studies that examine this phenomenon. Some focus on teachers. It appears that when a boy asks for help in a math or science class, the teacher coaches him and encourages him to solve the problem himself. When a girl asks, the teacher tends to solve the problem for her. Good-bye, confidence.

Another point of reference is how many college-age women drop out of math and science programs. This is sometimes pointed to as an indication of gender aptitude. However, the women who drop out often do so because they are getting Bs. Men remain in the programs even if they are getting Cs. The female students seem to have much higher expectations in terms of their own performance.

In recent news, two major retailers were accused of selling gender-biased tee shirts. Forever 21's shirt continues the girls-can't-do-math myth by proclaiming that its wearer is "Allergic to Algebra," while J.C. Penny's shirt makes a more general comment about beauty vs. smarts, bragging that "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me." Both stores quickly pulled the shirts from their shelves. But, clearly there were creative teams (and executives) at the companies that saw nothing wrong with those messages.

Of course, girls want to have beauty and brains. But, note that the word "beauty" comes first. If it's an either/or question, girls vote for good looks over good grades. It's no wonder. From the time they were tiny children, they've understood happily ever after to mean a beautiful princess who gets her man. Not a smart academic who gets her PhD in biophysics.

I think my daughter is the most beautiful person in the world. Obviously, I'm a wee bit biased. (All right, extremely biased.) That said, in our society, life is certainly easier for attractive people, so I want her to take care of herself and look her best. But, there is so much more to her than blonde hair and a pretty face! She is smart. She is funny. She is brave and compassionate and honest.

She is good at math.

The perceived conflict between how girls look and how they think is nothing new. So, I'm going to let a very smart woman from more than a century ago speak for me now. Her name is Louisa May Alcott and her characters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy struggled with gender biases as they defined their self-worth in the 1860s. This is one of the many themes of the book that feels relevant today. No wonder it's still so beloved by our own generation of "little women."

In the 1994 movie version (which I highly recommend!), Susan Sarandon tells her daughters ...

"I only care what you think of yourself. If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that that's all you really are. Time erodes all such beauty. But what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your brain, your humor, your kindness and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you."

You hear that, girls? Listen to your Marmee.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Say "Yes" to the Dress

Yesterday, we took good friends of ours out for a fancy schmancy brunch at one of our seaside town's yacht clubs. My daughter wore a dress.

This is the part of my story when the heavens separate and little animated angels and cupids flit about, joyously playing horns and harps. (Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

My daughter wore a dress. "Hallelujah!"

If I had the time or inclination to write a parenting blog ten years ago, my daughter's choice of brunchwear would not have been the least bit newsworthy. Back then, she only wore dresses. In fact, she only wore pink dresses. I basically scoured sale racks and the children's department at Marshalls for any and all things pink so she'd have enough dresses to get her through preschool and playdates without my living in the laundry room. She had lacy ones and sporty ones, long ones and short ones, preppy little Ralph Lauren jumpers and over-the-top dressy numbers with Disney princesses.

All dresses, all the time. And, all — did I mention? — pink.

Just before her sixth birthday, my daughter started riding lessons. Suddenly, we were buying breeches and boots. She expanded her school wardrobe to include sweaters and pants embroidered with ponies. She wore blue jeans. As the first graders started categorizing their peers, "So-and-so's a tomboy," "Whats-her-name's a girly-girl," she became more and more sporty.

Good-bye pink; good-bye dresses.

Oh, I could still get her into an appropriately frilly Christmas outfit for annual pictures or a trip into Boston to see the Nutcracker with her grandmother. But, that was about it. The rest of the year, no way, José. The more she could look like she was going to a stable, or coming home from a stable, or actually at a stable ... the happier she was.

Then, one day a few years ago, she announced that she wasn't going to wear dresses. Anymore. At all. Ever.

In fairness, my daughter's mother (uh, yes, that would be me) practically never wears dresses or skirts either. My idea of getting dolled up is a pair of flowing black silk pants with an embroidered Asian jacket. So, I didn't really feel I could insist that she say "yes" to a dress. But, my willingness to respect her style didn't make life any easier. It's fairly simple to find elegant pantsuits for women my age. For tweens, not so much. I had to get creative: black satin jeans with a white silk blouse, velvet tracksuits with rhinestones. She was always presentable, and arguably more stylish than the other girls, I guess. But I have to confess, I missed my pink princess.

The road back to dresses took some time, and it was marked by a handful of specific milestones. For example, the year my daughter turned 13, so did most of her friends. That meant more than one opportunity to party with her homies at a local synagogue. Not only did all the girls wear dresses, but many also wore loads of makeup and extremely high heels. Happily, we embraced the dress idea (albeit reluctantly), but stopped short of completely tramping it up.

At about the same time, the other students in my daughter's riding class were turning sixteen. (Having ridden more than half her life, she's at a fairly advanced level for her age.) Most of the time, these older girls are in jodhpurs or jeans and caked in hay, if not horse crap. Suddenly, my daughter saw that they were willing to get a little glamorous. They still rode as fast and jumped as high; they were still serious horsewomen. But, they cleaned up real nice.

The final stop on our journey, was our cruise earlier in the summer with my best friend and her college-bound daughter. Under this older girl's approving eye, my daughter not only wore the dresses I'd forced her to pack, but she bought two more while we were on the trip!

So, back to our brunch. Our friends had brought their nine-year old daughter who was wearing a frilly tiered dress over a pair of leggings. She looked adorable. My daughter was in a short, flirty dress, snakeskin patterned with a ruffled skirt. It was a gift from my mother who has never accepted the "no dresses, no way, no how" edict. I had to lend her a pair of my shoes (the years-old aversion has led to a severe lack of appropriate footwear), and she also looked adorable.

So now that we have finally broken the dresscode stalemate, I'm thinking ahead to the holidays. After being denied for so long, I am eager to hit Saks or Nieman Marcus and buy the most classic party dress I can find. However, I know better. At this stage, I'm not dressing my daughter; she is quite definitely dressing herself. I can maybe, kinda, sorta point her in the right direction.

But the decision — and the dress — will be hers.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Drama Majors

Babies may cry a lot. Toddlers may tantrum. Elderly people may cherish bittersweet memories of happier days. But, for pure, unadulterated drama, nothing beats the tweens.

This isn't new.

When I was a tween, my favorite movie was Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. The first time I saw it, it was as though I suddenly understood the entirety of the human condition. We were here to love — not wisely, but too well. (All right, wrong play, I know, but relevant, don't you think?) Parents, community, life, religion, duty. Nothing meant anything in the face of star-crossed romance. To die for love? It was an honor that I dreamed not of!

It was the 70s. I had a poster from the movie over my bed. I read and re-read the play hundreds (maybe thousands) of times. I had an 8-LP set of the entire film's audio, which I had miraculously found — on sale — in the movie soundtrack department of Sam Goody on Lexington and 44th Street. I played it alone in my room over and over and over. This was before VCRs were common; I can't imagine the rivers of ecstatic tears I might have shed had I been able to actually watch the movie on a daily basis. I was distraught when my school ID was stolen (along with my Frye leather wallet and about $4 in cash) because people had told me I looked like Olivia Hussey in the picture.

To this day, just mention Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet? Deep sigh.

A couple of years ago, I tried to get my tween to watch the movie with me (yes, gentle reader, I now have my very own copy — such exquisite sorrow, such bliss!). It was one of those mother-daughter events I had looked forward to. We would curl up on the sofa with snacks and a big box of Kleenex. Obviously, there would be no boys allowed.

We started the movie, but my daughter isn't dumb. She figured out pretty quickly that we weren't in for a happy ending. "It's too sad!" she protested. I think we may have barely reached the point where Mercutio dies. It was not Shakespeare's ending, but it was definitely ours. I put the movie away for another day.

Now, a couple of years later, my daughter is caught up in her own tween tragedies. Mean girls at lunch, having to wear glasses to see the white boards in class, the loss of a favorite pony at her stable. Countless events like these, large and small, drive her to tears on a pretty regular basis.

My husband is perpetually bewildered by it. Me? I try to help. Operative word: try.

There's a distinct chemical reaction that occurs in the body and soul of a mother when we hear our baby's cry. Pulses and blood pressures increase; we are physically as well as emotionally compelled into action. This doesn't completely go away just because they don't need us for basic human survival anymore. My daughter's tears (even when my decisions — "No cell phone for a week," "No riding tonight," "No Facebook forever" — have caused them) still drive me to distraction.

We talk through whatever has happened. I give advice. I work to instill resilience. I encourage her to take control of her own reactions when she can't control the actions of others. My success is well ... not very successful. But, at least she comes to me with her woes so some part of her must still think I have the resources to comfort.

And, I have to remind myself that part of being that age is feeling, feeling oh-so intensely. She is making sense of the world and plotting her own course as the heroine in it. Boredom is the enemy. Experiencing emotion, even painful emotion, even godawful, blubbering, heartbreaking emotion, keeps her in her own spotlight.

In truth, we have been blessed with very little actual tragedy in our family to date. So, my daughter (like myself before her) has to create or at least nurture what poignant sadness she can. Sometimes I can help her see perspective or even a touch of humor in a situation. Sometimes I can help her stop crying. But, sometimes — and, this is precisely what my husband does not get — she just needs to cry.

Because, never was a tale of such woe, as a tween who simply has to let it go.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Boys of Summer

School started yesterday and, to quote a far better writer than myself, "the sun for sorrow did not show his head."

The bad news was that it was raining. The good news was that it was raining. You see, because it was raining my daughter actually agreed to have me drive her to the middle school. These days, she and a couple of friends walk together every morning. Mothers — even the most well-meaning of us — are absolutely, positively, quite definitely not invited.

That's okay. I have lots of other things to do. (Sniff.)

Like so many Septembers past, my daughter was weighed down with backpack and lunchbox, binders and pencils, gym clothes and sneakers. She chose a striped top from American Eagle Outfitters ($10 at their Times Square flagship store — I love NY!), cargo capris and her new Converse All Stars. I thought she looked especially cute, but I didn't dare say anything. My doing so would have guaranteed a change of heart — and a change of clothes.

Before we left, I had to shoot a quick "first day of school" picture for the grandmothers. Until this year, said picture was always taken on the front steps of whatever school my little supermodel was attending. This year? "Hell to the no!" I was lucky to get a 30-second session on the relative privacy of our front porch. She did smile at the last minute though, albeit with rather unamused tolerance. (And, did I mention she looked really cute?)

We drove the quick mile to school and took our place in the line of cars snaking around the building to the official drop-off location behind. I'm proud to report that I was admirably reserved. No kiss "good-bye," no waving, no affectionate endearments called out as she trudged down the path to the school's back door. I was the very model of maternal self-restraint.

As I pulled out into the queue of parents leaving the property I noticed something different. I recognized several of the girls, but who were all these teenage boys? Tall, broad-shouldered, in several cases zitty. These were not the little boys of seventh grade. These were — gasp! — young men.

What happened?

It was as though all of the male members of the eighth grade had hit puberty en masse. The entire class had reached some tween testosterone tipping point.

As I looked closer, I realized I did know some of these strange new people. I spotted a couple of my daughter's boy friends (not to be confused with boyfriends, bien sur). I recognized a few of the boys who had been in the advertising elective I taught in sixth grade. For the past three years or so, the girls have all grown up and filled out, while their counterparts have stayed ... well ... pretty much the same. For a while there, it seemed like the girls were a bunch of college co-eds, babysitting their male classmates.

From what I saw yesterday, the times they are a-changing!

Until now, when I've heard about girls in my daughter's class "dating" boys in my daughter's class, I've thought it was rather silly. The girls, many in makeup and heels already, certainly looked ready for a night on the town. But, the boys? Not so much. Even pressed and dressed for picture day, they looked like a pack of rumpled Cub Scouts.

Other than one sweet crush (his, not hers) and a little bar mitzvah dancing, my daughter hasn't exactly jumped into the swinging singles scene. She and her friends have been known to tease boys on Facebook, but I don't worry about it. (I think it's akin to our making crank phone calls in the 70s.) After all, I've always reassured myself, how much trouble can she really get into with these little little boys?

Okay, it's a whole new ballgame. Suddenly these little boys I've known since preschool are not just taller than my daughter; they're taller than me. Their voices are changing. They're standing up straighter. Is that the slightest shadow of a mustache hovering above their upper lip? Oh my!

Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy year!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Parallel Play

Like everything else in life, summer camp has its pro's and con's. Camp is a fine time to meet new friends — and, indeed, my tween daughter returned from three weeks at an equestrian eventing facility in Vermont with about a dozen new BFFs. Unfortunately, though, when you head off in search of summertime adventures, you often leave behind people you love. I'm not talking about her devoted parents, mind you; I'm talking about her local besties.

Through a serious lack of coordination on the part of two harried mothers, my daughter and her best friend were scheduled for camp sessions that left no time together for a full six weeks. Literally, the day that we brought our daughter home was the same day that the other family took their daughter away.

Sacré bleu!

As you can imagine, their reunion at the end of the successive camp sessions was rather emotional. Despite letters back and forth over the weeks, there was so much to cover. Who had they met? What had they done? Which camp had the best counselors? Which had the worst food? For the record, my daughter swears it was hers.

The two girls, armed with heaping baskets of microwave popcorn and orange sodas, happily headed to my daughter's room to catch up. I had some work to do and quickly forgot about them.

About an hour later, I went downstairs for an iced coffee and figured I should look in. The two girls were sprawled on the floor with their cell phones, browsing, texting, playing music, playing games. Two tweens with smart phones can pretty much do whatever they like. What they weren't doing was talking to each other.

"Hey guys," I asked, "How are ya?"

"Fine," they answered in unison.

"Do you need anything?"


They didn't miss a beat and they didn't look up from their phones. Obviously it had taken less than an hour to make up for several weeks apart. They seemed happy; they certainly weren't fighting. They were just alone, together.

I was reminded of my daughter's toddler days and some of our first "playdates." Typically, we would schedule time with another mother and child at our house or theirs. The moms would plunk the kids down next to each other with an assortment of toys or books or blocks. The moms would then sip coffee and compare notes, while the two children played — but not with each other. Like the two tweens up in my daughter's room, they were alone, together.

This isn't the first time I've seen a parallel between my daughter as tween and my daughter as toddler. There's the issue of her relentless quest for independence. There's the parental pressure to say "No," and mean it. And, there's the necessity of childproofing the house. Of course, I don't have to cover electrical outlets anymore, but the middle school and our local police chief suggest keeping alcohol and prescription medicine out of reach. And, there are definitely private parts of my life that I want to keep ... well ... private.

The emotional swings are very similar to those we experienced a decade ago. The highs are really high. The lows are godawful low. My daughter's growth and development — and my wonder as I watch — are just as astounding.

So, what of the two tweens coexisting without communicating? On the one hand, it bothered me. On the other, they were perfectly happy. And, their interaction (or lack thereof) wasn't all that different from the behavior I see everyday from every adult in every Starbucks.

So, I quietly closed the door. I decided to leave them alone. Together.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gulls Just Want To Have Fun

When I was a child, my family had a quaint, old-fashioned custom. We used to watch TV together. Really. All of us in the same room watching the same show.

All right, so maybe this was a matter of necessity. After all, we had only one television set (and even that was a black-and-white one until I was twelve years old). But truly, in my memory at least, there were many more programs that were meant for multiple generations to enjoy together. Some of our favorites were The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

These shows not only brought exotic wildlife into our living room, but they helped us see the connections between our species and the fish and animals we learned about. It wasn't hard to anthropomorphize (one of my all-time favorite SAT words) when we saw a group of monkeys playing in a tree, a mother mountain lion with her cubs, or a family of dolphins swimming in synchronicity.

On our family's trip to Maine this week, I had an opportunity to project human feelings and relationships onto a couple of members of the local fauna. One thing that I've learned writing Lovin' the Alien for the past six months is that the experience of mothering a tween is not unique to my country or culture. Turns out, other species may be in a position to relate as well.

We were sitting on our balcony overlooking Boothbay Harbor, enjoying breakfast and looking through some guidebooks. There were two gulls on the rocks below us. One was the epitome of a picture-perfect seagull: crisp white breast, light grey wings, black tail. The other was about the same size, but scruffy, mottled grey and light brown. I pointed them out to my tween daughter.

"You see those birds?" I asked, "They are the same species even though they look so different now. The younger one will look like the mother when she gets older."

My daughter gave me a somewhat condescending look and the quickest of nods. She immediately went back to her book.

My husband was more impressed. "Really?" he asked.

"That's right," I smiled with self-satisfaction. You see, I know many things my spouse doesn't. But, usually my proprietary knowledge centers around the suffragist movement, classic Broadway musicals or 19th century English literature. It is very very very rare that I pull out a factoid about nature. However, my first professional job, thanks to (or perhaps I should say, in spite of) a promising academic career at a prestigious university, was writing the backs of paperback books. One of these was the Peterson Guide to Birds of North America.

I continued, "Seagulls take a couple of years to grow those distinct white, grey and black feathers. That's how you can tell which ones are immature."

Just then, the two gulls began to squawk at each other. Since I was already on my nature-girl roll, I decided to translate aloud.

Mother Gull: (short squawk) Act your age. Stand up straight.

(In truth, the younger gull was slouching.)

Tween Gull: (longer squawk) Why are you always on my case? You just don't get it. You're ruining my life.

Mother Gull: (short squawk) Don't take that tone with me young lady.

Tween Gull: (sequence of several long squawks) Y'know, I'm not a kid anymore. The other seagulls don't have to stand up straight. Or make their bed. Or have their laptops off by 8 pm. You're RUINING my life!

By now, my husband was laughing and throwing in the odd additional bit of dialogue.
My daughter shot us a look of pathetic disgust and went inside to browse the pictures on her phone (happily for us — sadly for her — there was no cell service where we were staying).

Mother Gull: (medium squawk) You still don't appreciate me after all the things I do for you?

Tween Gull: (long squawk) This vacation sucks! I can't believe my phone doesn't work here! I can't believe I can't text anybody for three whole days! This is so-o-o-o-o boring! You just don't get it. YOU'RE RUINING MY LIFE!!!!!

At this point, the younger seagull was hopping back and forth and shrieking. It was truly a tantrum of terrific proportions (and one that would have made any self-respecting human tween proud). The mother gull was walking away from her offspring, but turned for one more squawk. I translated.

Mother Gull: I'm out of here. Just see how well you and your father do when I get my own apartment in New York!

"New York?" choked my husband and daughter (from inside) in unison.

"Hey, I'm just telling you what she said," I shrugged innocently.

With a final squawk, the two gulls flew off more or less together. I chuckled and went back to my guidebook until I realized that my daughter was standing in the doorway.

She looked at us and shook her head. "You really crack yourselves up, don't you," she observed disdainfully.

Yep, sometimes we still do.