Saturday, December 29, 2012

Emotional Creatures

Holidays are hectic — especially when you have only a limited number of days to reconnect with a seemingly limitless number of family and friends. After spending Christmas at home in Massachusetts, we set out for our annual New Year's celebration in New York.

We would have less than a 24-hour overlap with our good friends from London and we decided to make the most of it. My long-time girlfriend's daughters are just a bit younger than my own teenager, and we hadn't seen them since our visit to the U.K. last June. But, what to do, what to do? It used to be easier getting together; when the girls were little, we could simply rendez-vous in a playground. Today, the common denominator seems to be shopping, but I think there's been more than enough conspicuous consumption this season, thank you very much. I mean really, how many sweaters and jeans and boots and jewelry and iPhone cases does one fifteen year old girl need? (Apparently, a lot. But, I digress.)

So, in a fit of cultural self-righteousness, I ordered tickets for a show. I'm a long-time fan of Eve Ensler and her Vagina Monologues, and her current off-Broadway production sounded promising. Emotional Creature is about "The secret life of girls around the world." Well, our little group would only represent girls from two continents, but (from the parents' perspective at least) any glimpse into their secrets would be most welcome. In fact, I originally reserved seats for only the girls and the moms. Then my friend's husband asked to join us ("It might help me understand them") and my own husband was coerced into coming as well.

In a high-energy 90 minutes, we were invited into multiple secret lives. Some were painfully familiar. There was a dorky teen who tearfully faced the popular girls gauntlet in the cafeteria. There was a girl whose parents thought she was studying, but who was actually procrastinating by taking countless "selfies" with her smartphone camera to update her online profile. There was a "thinspiration" Hunger Blog of wannabe anorectics. "Celery!" announced one, "It has no calories!" "Help me!" pleaded another, "I just ate a whole bag of donuts!"

There was a little bit of tough language ("c*nt" comes to mind, and, perhaps in homage to earlier work, "vagina" was thrown around pretty liberally). And, one young lesbian relived her thrilling first kiss only to tell us how her love interest spurned her at school the next day. There was a teen pregnancy and a suicide fantasy. But, all in all, the tales of U.S. teens were pretty tame.

I knew we were in trouble when the stories moved overseas. We heard a heart-wrenching monologue from an underage Eastern European prostitute. "I am garbage; I am receptacle." Ten rules for surviving rape and slavery from a teen mother in the Congo. "Never look at his eyes. Never feel sorry for him. Never lose hope." And, another young woman in Tanzania who climbs a mountain to plead to her god to save her from genital cutting. "I cannot believe you would want my clitoris cut. I just discovered it!" 

The youngest of our three girls was sitting next to me and I was concerned about her. In hindsight, I think I probably bugged the crap out of her, reassuringly stroking her shoulder and patting her thigh. 

Then again, I didn't dare so much as look at the two dads. Yikes.

Nevertheless, everyone seems to have survived the experience, and my own daughter announced, "I loved it! If I lived here I would see it again and again."

The highlight for me was a brilliant monologue spoken by a fifteen year old girl in a toy factory in China. She was proud of her work as well as her ability to project her thoughts across space by focusing and sending her message out to the world inside the Barbie heads she manufactured. She shares with us that a new Barbie is created every three seconds and that there are more than a billion of them out there. She sharply contrasts Barbie's world with her own.

"She live in dreamhouse? I live in nightmare house!"

But, by the end of her story, she is defending Barbie, explaining that she is much smarter than we give her credit for and that she actually hates shopping. "Free Barbie!" she chants, "Free Barbie!" And the audience joins in.

The final number, despite some really raw stories that preceded it, was full-on girl power. And, I was very happy to be there with my own emotional creature:

I am an emotional creature.

Why would you want to shut me down
or turn me off? 

I am an emotional
I am an emotional, devotional,
incandotional, creature.
And I love, hear me,
love love love
being a girl.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve Gift, Revisited

Only 1 shopping and wrapping and cooking and cleaning day left until Christmas. So, with about a thousand festive things left on my holiday "To do" list, I'm going to repost an essay from last Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Our family has a tradition that dates back longer than I can remember. It started with my mother's own childhood, growing up in Mountain Grove, Missouri. On the morning of December 24th, the first person to shout "Christmas Eve Gift!' wins. My family takes this pretty seriously — my enthusiastic younger brother has been known to call people minutes after midnight to declare "Christmas Eve Gift" victory.

The game is not unique to my family. If you Google "Christmas Eve Gift" (with the quotation marks), you'll get over 600,000 hits. I'm a working mother and didn't have time to read them all, but the handful I did peruse were sweet reminiscences much like mine in the paragraph above.

This friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly, sometimes downright ruthless) competition frustrated my husband to no end. 'What do you win?" he demanded. "Why is there no gift? This is lame!"

So, when we adopted the practice with our own daughter, I made sure there was always a gift. A funny, seasonal knick-knack (which I chose based on its appropriateness for any of us, but bought specifically for her since I always let her win). It might be a wind-up dancing elf, a small box of chocolates, an ornament, a Pooh Bear dreidel, or (her favorite) a tiny naked baby doll from Japan wearing a Santa hat. This year, it was an adorable felt donkey ornament. I figured it was close enough to a horse if my daughter won it. And, it's the symbol of the Democratic party if my liberal husband won.

As per Christmas Eve usual, the tween walked away with the prize. I don't think she was impressed. She told me, ever so sweetly, that she thought it would look better on the big tree downstairs and not on the smaller one in her room. Clearly the adorable ornament wasn't as adorable as I thought. Oh well.

That's all right; we have another annual tradition. My husband meets his best friend for lunch (if the long nap he takes each year afterwards is any indication, we are probably talking 'liquid lunch'). So, my daughter and I go out together for our own meal. This was especially fun back when I was working at an agency in Boston and rarely saw her midday. She was just three or four years old the first time we had our special Christmas Eve luncheon. We went to a chic and charming little bistro, called ... Friendly's.

That particular day, Friendly's was overcrowded and understaffed. There were a couple of waitresses who weren't moving very quickly, and one waiter, who seemed to be pulling most of the waitering weight. He was amiable and efficient, and even though the kitchen mixed up our sandwiches (how do you mix up grilled cheese?), he kept his sense of humor and made everything right.

We felt bad that he was working — and working so hard! — on Christmas Eve. So, we decided to leave him a "Special-Secret-Santa-Christmas-Eve-Tip." I went and paid at the register while my daughter wrote "MERRY CHRISTMAS" (phonetically) in crayon on her folded placemat. We slipped an over-the-top generous gratuity inside and raced out, giggling wildly.

From then on, we made a date for our Secret Santa lunch. Once Friendly's closed (after more than thirty years; my husband worked there as a teenager), we moved on to other local restaurants: Bertucci's, Pizzeria UNO. Each time, we made it a point to converse with our waitperson and find out what he or she was doing for the holiday. Each time, we left a regular tip for our meal plus a generous Christmas bonus. Each time, we ran out of the restaurant, thrilled with our little secret and laughing.

Last year, we went to a coffee shop in neighboring Salem. The joint was jammed and our waitress was terrific! She noticed that we had made a list on one of our napkins and asked if we were still shopping? No, I told her. The list included friends' houses at which we planned to drop off goodies on the way home.

She said that she herself was almost finished. She was a single mom, she explained, and just needed two more presents, the big ones, for her teenage son and daughter. When she got off at 5:00, she was going to rush over to the mall to get them each an iPod. It occurred to me that she had probably waited until the last minute to get these special gifts because she didn't have the cash sooner. My daughter and I were excited — it felt like we had hit Secret Santa pay dirt! We did what we could to contribute to the iPods and our giddy dash out of the restaurant was even more exhilarating than usual.

I enjoy most (all right, many, or at least some) meals with my daughter. But, I treasure the time we spend together at lunch every Christmas Eve. Joining forces to help someone is powerful stuff. We don't have the resources of Oprah or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but we can make a difference in our way.

Maya Angelou once said, "I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver." I'll think of this as my daughter and I joyfully run down the street together after our lunch this afternoon.

May your soul find liberation and joy this Christmas Eve too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of the World As We Know It

"I lived through the Mayan Apocalypse and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." Yes folks, it is 12/21/12 and ... we're all still here. What a relief.

I believe there are many things wrong with this world. Let's face it, I think we'd all like a "do over" when it comes to the environment, social justice and such. Nevertheless I'm not quite ready to hang it all up yet. I have faith in the future. Really.

Of course, there are some phenomena to which I could easily say "Ch’abej chik." (That's "good-bye" in the K'iche dialect of the Mayan language family — you gotta love the Internet!)

Here are just a few of them:

My teenage daughter's inability to get up in the morning — despite two insistent alarms followed by two insistent parents.

My teenage daughter's attitude when I try to help her or correct her or teach her or talk to her or drive her places or buy her things or ... or ... or ... well, pretty much all the time.

My teenage daughter's deep-rooted belief that she is the center of the universe and that we are all merely satellites orbiting around her magnificence.

My teenage daughter's perpetual friend drama.

My teenage daughter's incredibly stinky horse laundry and how my car smells every time we leave the stable.

My teenage daughter's selective hearing when it comes to anything we tell her or ask her to do.

My teenage daughter's selective eyesight when it comes to clothes on the floor, unmade beds, or open drawers and closet doors.

My teenage daughter's logical behavior. Like when she comes home famished and simply has to make a packet of ramen noodles because she's "so starving." BUT, when I open her lunchbox, lo and behold, there's an untouched sandwich.

My teenage daughter's insatiable appetite for the latest technology. For YouTube, for Facebook, for Instagram, for texting.

My teenage daughter's — shall we say — "creative" study habits. "But Mo-o-om, I'm multi-tasking."

My teenage daughter's radio stations. Although, now that she's found Pandora, radio stations are so passé. Jeez.

My teenage daughter's stubborn streak and her complete and total refusal to ever ever ever say "I'm sorry," "You were right," or "Thank you." (Unless, that is, she needs or wants something and then her sincerity is sincerely astounding.)

That's right. These are things I could easily do without forever after. Or at least until the next false alarm: be that Rapture, Judgement Day, Armageddon, zombies, aliens, or super novas. And, there are many (oh so many) more. 

And yet, I am truly glad we've made it through. Because, if today had indeed been the end of days, what would I miss?

You guessed it. My teenage daughter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

They Are All Our Children Too

I am at a loss for words.

I am a writer. For nearly thirty years, I've made my living by my pen (or, these days, by my keypad). I've entertained you with tales of my "alien" every two to three days for the past twenty months. But, words are failing me now.

Since Friday, I have been at a loss.

What can anyone say about the tragedy that took place Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut? How could words possibly do justice to the agony and despair that families there are feeling? And, how do I, a mother with an unharmed daughter who will see another birthday and assumedly many more thereafter, have the right to say anything at all?

I've written about it before, and I firmly believe it. When I became a mother, I became everyone's mother. When someone else's baby is hurt or sick or sad, I easily and immediately project my own child onto the one who is suffering. It's common for people to witness profound grief like that we're seeing in Newtown this week and say, "I can't imagine!" The thing is ... I can imagine. What I can't conceive is how a mother could ever go on afterwards.

Yet they do.

As a country, we owe every parent of every person killed at Sandy Hook an apology. Not an "I'm sorry for your loss," but a deep and sincere admittance that we let those innocent babies (and brave adults) down. They say, "we get the government we deserve." We have sat back while our elected leaders were bullied by gun manufacturers, enthusiasts and associations. And who were the ultimate victims of our inaction? The very people that we are here to protect. Our children.

There is a beautiful song from the show Miss Saigon, called "Bui Doi" (or "dust of life"). These lyrics have been playing and replaying in my mind:

They are the reminders
Of all the good we failed to do
That's why we know
Deep in our hearts
That they are all
Our children too

Today, President Obama made a speech — and a commitment to the American people — about gun control and ending the senseless violence we have experienced. It was both passionate and rationale. And long overdue.

"But the fact that this problem is complex, can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing. The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence, doesn’t mean that we can’t steadily reduce the violence and prevent the very worst violence."

I can already hear the self-satisfied response of some: "But, guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Wrong. People with guns kill people.

And, if you think an incident like Sandy Hook Elementary School couldn't happen in your town, at your school, think again.

The president and, by his appointment as leader of the task force, the vice president have their work cut out for them. Obama has promised a definitive recommendation by January which he has pledged to push through. He has encouraged Congress to address these issues immediately.  

If he is unsuccessful, I suggest that every mother in this country descend on the capitol. I know of nothing more powerful than a mother's love for her children. It takes work, but this is still a country in which the people can demand — and obtain — justice.

No, we cannot completely safeguard our families. But, as the president said, "We have a deep obligation to try."

The children of Sandy Hook are all our children too.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Loving Stranger's Note

This evening, I found a list of the "26 Moments That Restored Our Faith in Humanity" on BuzzFeed. 

Most of them were pretty humbling: a doctor who opened his office with free health care for Hurricane Sandy victims; a young bride who married her quadriplegic veteran fiancé; a soccer team that let its manager, a student with Down Syndrome, start a match. There were people who saved animals, people who helped the homeless, people who defended injustice. Random acts of compassion and kindness and care.

Then, I saw this note. I was sitting alone with my laptop in our dining room — my husband was upstairs napping between our Christmas party commitments; my teen daughter was working on her book review of The Handmaid's Tale — so no one was really within listening range. But, I couldn't help myself.

"Oh!" I said aloud and my eyes began to water.

Here's why:

Wow, does this resonate for me. My own "wee one" is not so very "wee" anymore. And, I'm sorry to report that snuggling left the picture many many moons ago, I'm afraid. Along with bedtime stories and holding hands at crosswalks.

What a lovely, generous act. (I only wish I had thought of it first.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Child Support

When my daughter was little, she was — as Mary Poppins would say — "practically perfect in every way." I don't think this is my over-romanticizing the past. Really, she was an easy-peasy child. And, this made it easy-peasy for me to be a good mom. She was agreeable, compliant, cheerful, sweet. I rarely — if ever — raised my voice.

How times have changed, my friends.

These days, I am torn between frustration over her actions (or, often, inactions) and self-recrimination over my own. Whether she realizes it or not, I don't enjoy shrieking at her. It isn't fun to find fault. I don't leave her room feeling good or proud or victorious. Generally, I slink off and berate myself for losing my cool.

I felt I had a lot of support from other mothers years ago when we were struggling with daycare schedules, breast-feeding and potty training. But, the issues of raising a teenager don't seem to be shared as much. Take a look at typical Facebook posts by moms about their high schoolers: 

Joey made the honor roll ... again. ;)

We were just thrilled when Susie's softball team took the state championship.

Here's Kayla helping out at the homeless shelter.

And, yes, I know I am guilty myself. What will my little equestrienne do with yet another blue ribbon? 


For all the sharing out there, I don't think we're broadcasting our real feelings. Here's what I'd like to see (or, let's face it, post) if we were all being honest:

Why does my teenager hate me so much?

I went to college for this???

She's a monster and I'm scared to go into her room.

Last night, I attended an ad industry holiday party. Although we all had professional stories to tell, one conversation quickly evolved into a group therapy session with myself and other parents of teenagers earnestly listening to our slightly older peers. You see, they had already lived through the terrible teens and come out the other side. "It will get better," they assured us. "They'll come back around." "You have to trust that you taught them the important stuff already." 

Being the mother of a teen is tough. And, as my best friend always urges me to remember, "If she likes you, you're not doing your job."

It helps to hear other stories. For one thing, it's gratifying to know that you're not alone. For another, some of the stories are so much worse that you gain perspective. You realize your own little spawn of Satan ain't so bad after all. 

So what if you spend an inordinate amount of your life policing and nagging, checking homework and reviewing grades? I have heard many grown people wish that their parents had pushed them harder. I've never once heard a person complain the other way.

I recently found this online, edited it a bit and sent it to my daughter. (I wish I could tell you who wrote it in the first place, but like so many things that go viral, it's virtually impossible to find where it started.)

My promise to my child. I am your mom first, your friend second. I will guide you, lecture you, flip out on you, drive you insane, be your worst nightmare and hunt you down like a bloodhound when needed because I LOVE YOU! When you understand that, I will know you are a responsible adult. You will NEVER find someone who cares, worries about and loves you more than I do!

Hear, hear!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Tree Huggers

O tannenbaum! Like so many people, I have warm memories of Christmas trees. 

Growing up in midtown Manhattan, I would often accompany my father to purchase our tree from one of the sidewalk vendors. Like everything in New York City, these trees were available for, shall we say, a premium; some years, we had to wait until close to Christmas in order to negotiate a better price. Until I was old enough to object, my father used me as a pitiful little accomplice. He would coach me en route. "Oh Daddy, this one is so nice. I know it's our tree. I just know it." My father (who was a professional actor with Broadway credits) would then sheepishly admit to the seller that he didn't have quite enough for the tree his small daughter had fallen in love with. Eventually I became too big (and too self-conscious) and my role was handed down to my sister, whose performance was even more Dickensian than mine. Step aside, Little Nell, step aside.

My mother had a beautiful collection of ornaments that seemed fragile and precious and altogether magical. A Santa from her years studying in Germany, gold and silver stars with shiny streamers, glass balls, endearing felt creatures. I loved helping with the tree as long as I lived at home, and looked forward to seeing it each year when I visited from college.

So, of course, I knew that Christmas trees would be important to my own holiday traditions.

My husband would argue that I've taken it a little too far.

Yes, I'm a Christmas tree junkie. I trim four trees each year: living room, dining room, guest room and my now teen daughter's room. (Six years ago, I was very sick, having contracted a hateful intestinal virus after some surgery. We pared back; we only had two trees.) 

The first year we put a tree in our then little girl's room, she was distressed to realize that it was the smallest tree in the house. This wasn't meant as a slight. First of all, despite a bunch of "Baby's 1st Christmas" ornaments, we had less trimmings for her. Also, a seven-foot tree felt — I don't know — awkward for a person who was barely three feet high herself.

Still, we listened. The next year, one of our trees was taller than we expected. And, since my daughter's ceiling is actually higher than those in other rooms, the giant fir became hers.

Of course, this tradition necessitated amassing another tree's worth of ornaments. We started with teddy bears of all types: knit, wooden, quilted in tartan plaid, small jointed plush. A year or two later (I confess these Christmases run together), an art director I work with gave her a box of classic cartoon characters (Bullwinkle, the Chipmunks, that scientist dog guy whose name I can't recall). My best friend gave her a collector's set of exquisitely carved Alice in Wonderland figures. There were Mickey Mouses, Snoopy and Woodstock, Disney Princesses and a bevy of Barbies, decked out in festive finery (yes, they certainly know how to put the ho in ho-liday).

Just as the decorations in her room evolved from fairies to horses, her Christmas tree eventually went equine as well. People gave her horse ornaments, rider ornaments, saddle and boot and bridle ornaments. She had (multiple) sets of lights with glowing plastic steeds where bare bulbs would otherwise be. She had a hand-embroidered garland of "tack" (that would be equestrian equipment for those of you who don't spend every moment of discretionary time at a stable, as I — alas — do). My husband brought her a beautiful painted pony from a business trip to Prague, which proudly serves as her topper.

This year, much to my wonder, she demanded a smaller tree. Much smaller. (Really. Except that it's symmetrical and actually has several branches, it could be a Charlie Brown tree.) This surprised me. She has the space; heaven knows she has the ornaments. No, she was adamant. She wanted a tiny tree.

Lesson learned: don't fight the fights that aren't worth fighting. Okay. We'd just pull a few (a very few) of her decorations and keep the rest packed away. On the bright side, she saved us $25.

My husband was coerced into tree-shopping and installing prior to leaving for a weekend with friends. As per usual, I set about trimming solo. I complain (I complain a lot), but I enjoy this all-day ritual. I listen to my favorite Christmas albums, sip coffee in the morning and egg nog in the afternoon. By dinnertime, the three main trees were up and, if I do say so myself, they looked stunning. I had to wait on the tree in my daughter's room because she needed to go through her ornaments and decide which fortunate few would be on display this year.

We sat together on her carpet. She unwrapped and passed judgement; I rewrapped. A fairly large assortment of 'maybes' was quickly whittled down to a choice dozen or so that ended up on the tree. I was surprised by some of the choices — both affirmative and negative. The thing is, to my daughter, they are all just ornaments. To me, they are distinct memories. Each and every one is associated with a particular giver back in some particular December. I seem to forget where I leave my phone on a fairly regular basis, but I do remember the back story of all our Christmas ornaments.

My strategy this year was to let her have her way. If the bristly brush squirrel ornament somehow ranked higher than the bejeweled carousel horse, well, so be it. I was proud of my ability to hold my tongue.

Until a small wooden rocking horse was moved from the 'maybe' pile to the 'no.' I couldn't help it; a disappointed "Oh," escaped.

She looked at me quizzically.

"That's from the first Christmas tree I ever had that was my own. In my tiny apartment in Greenwich Village." I turned it over for her so she could see the date: 1984.

She nodded almost imperceptibly. Then, she took the little rocking horse back and put it on her tree.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The ABCs of Being a Teenager's Mom

A is for Affection
Which I still can't help feeling

B is for Boots
That raise our debt ceiling

C is for Careless
Missing coats, gloves and hat

D is for Denial
That she ever acts like a brat

E is for Edge 
That she drives me right up to

F is for "Fun"
That's a band. Hm. Who knew?

G is for Girly Girl
Something she just disdains

H is for Horses
And for saddles and reins

I is for Ice Cream
Orange Leaf, Ben & Jerry

J is for Jumping
Which this mom finds quite scary

K is for Karma
Which I humbly try to teach her

L is for Lackadaisical
She can be such a lazy creature

M is for Memories
Of the toddler I miss

N is for Not
Quite ready for her first kiss

O is for Old
The years passed in a wink

P is for Purple
Neon orange and pink

Q is for Quizzes
And last minute study

R is for Riding
With a really good buddy

S is for Silly
The way she acts with her corps

T is for Team Harmony
A club I "made her" sign up for

U is for Unyielding
She stands firm, she's no fool

V is for Vicious
Like those mean girls at school

W is for Wreck
Or what she calls her room

X is for Xanax
Which relieves doom and gloom

Y is for Yo Yo
An emotional whirl

Z is for Zealous
And how much I still love my girl.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Princess is Preggers

Big news from the U.K. Kate is great ... with child. Royal watchers everywhere are thrilled. 

But the poor Duchess of Cambridge has a rare condition called hyperemesis gravidarum. This is the formal medical term for acute morning sickness. In addition to what must be acute misery, Kate now has to be careful about dehydration and weight loss.

Let's face it, she didn't have a whole lot of weight to begin with. 

When I was pregnant, nearly sixteen years ago, I suffered from severe morning sickness myself. Except, in my case, the term "morning sickness" was really a misnomer. My nausea was not limited to any particular hour. It hit — and hit hard — pretty much all day, every day. And, while most expectant mothers feel some relief after about week twelve, mine lasted twenty-four weeks.

What can I say? I was always an overachiever.

My doctors were concerned. It was probably around the third month of my term when they called in one of their colleagues to have a serious heart-to-heart.

"You know," he told me, "It's not a good idea to diet while you're pregnant."

I explained that I wasn't dieting; it was just that nothing stayed down. He didn't seem convinced and prescribed a pint of ice cream each night for a week, followed by another visit.

"Sure," I agreed. "I love frozen yogurt."

"No," he corrected me. "Ice cream. The real stuff. Not light, not low-fat. A full pint of high test Ben & Jerry's each night and then we'll see."

I did eventually stop throwing up and I did gain weight. In fact, by the time my now teenage daughter was born, I had put on an absolutely respectable 29 pounds. Oh, but those first six months were horrible!

Kate is currently in hospital and under the finest of care, I have no doubt. But, if she were my BFF, here's some advice I would give her:

1. Figure out where the best public restrooms are on your way to and from work — just in case.

Please note: this first and fairly important suggestion is proof positive (as if proof were needed) that Kate Middleton is, in fact, not my BFF. She doesn't have to work, and I sincerely doubt she spends much time in public restrooms. But I digress ...

2. Try to find a McDonald's that turns its milkshake machine on at breakfast time. I don't know what's in it (chalk, maybe?), but a chocolate milkshake is a powerful early morning nausea prophylaxis.

3. Keep breath mints, a travel toothbrush and toothpaste in the glove compartment.

4. Crab rangoons. Really. Deep-fried cream cheese and crab. Not high on my hit parade until I was pregnant, but they did the trick thereafter. Today, my daughter is firmly convinced that this particular craving is responsible for her own predilection for pu pu platters.

5. Ginger. Yes, I know everyone recommends drinking ginger ale. (That's why my husband can't stand it as a healthy adult — because of all the times he had to drink it as a sick child.) But, there are other more sophisticated ways to imbibe. Kate should have one of the royal staff swing down to the nearest sushi bar and order a heaping side of pickled ginger. Then eat it delicately with bejeweled chopsticks. Hold the raw fish and seaweed, by all means.

They say there's a chemical released after a woman gives birth that makes her forget the excruciating pains of labor. (Otherwise, we would all be — and have — an only child.) So, while I certainly know how long I was grunting and groaning, I can't recall the physical sensation of those fourteen hours. But, I can absolutely remember the non-stop nausea. The times I dipped behind a dumpster, had to ask my in-laws to pull over on our way to a wake, and struggled through a lovely birthday dinner, knowing full well I was going to experience it twice. Ugh.

Was I miserable? Of course.

Was it worth it? Of course.

Did it give me something to hold over my daughter's head whenever she displeases me? You betcha.

Good luck, sweet Kate. And do try the crab rangoons. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Half the Sky

A couple of weeks ago, my teenage daughter and I went to Ohio for a long weekend visit with our close friends there. In addition to our usual activities (shopping too much, eating too much), we planned to take a roadtrip to Cincinnati to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I expected to be moved by the experience and I was. There was an actual "Slave pen," the building in which slaves were corralled like livestock until they were sent out to the auction block. There were dioramas and paintings depicting slave conditions. There were artifacts and dramatizations of individual stories — a young boy who left his family to flee north; a girl who hid in rafters above her grandmother's porch for seven years rather than be raped by her master anymore. There were inspiring stories about abolitionists, black and white, who risked everything to attain and secure the right to freedom for everyone.

I expected to be moved by a truly horrible and shameful chapter of our country's past. But, I didn't expect so much of the museum to be devoted to the world's current slave trade and to the plight of millions of women denied education, healthcare and freedom today.

In the exhibit "Invisible: Slavery Today," we learned that — right now — an estimated 12-27 million people are literally enslaved. As defined by the museum, 'Each victim is induced into slave-like exploitation through fraud, force or coercion. They are subject to physical abuse and/or psychological intimidation. And, they are not readily able to free themselves from their situation.' 

It is hard to accept (or imagine) that conditions today are in some ways worse than they were for enslaved Africans in the 18th and 19th century. Technically, there are no "owners," so there is no accountability whatsoever. And, slaves can be purchased for as little as $100 (compared to 10 times that much in the 1850s). So they are no longer valued property. They are disposable.

The scope of the issue was mind-numbing. So, to drive home the human aspect of all of this, the museum included individual stories: narratives of real people (many of them children) who had been abducted, coerced, blackmailed or tricked. Many were savagely raped, beaten or drugged into submission. And, while the bulk of the stories took place in other parts of the world, there were some that started — or at least ended — right here in the U.S. 

Walking through this exhibit, I watched my daughter with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I didn't want to crowd her as she discovered these terrible truths. But, as a mother, my natural inclination was to shield her from them. I think we all left this particular exhibit feeling overwhelmed and absolutely helpless. 

Emotionally exhausted (and physically tired too — the museum is massive), we stopped in the gift shop on our way out. Most of the items for sale were handcrafts made by women in developing countries. (There was one truly tasteless item: a souvenir shot glass that seemed profoundly inappropriate.) But, there were also books that related to the museum's exhibits. That's where I found Half the Sky.

Half the Sky is written by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The title comes from Mao Zedong's declaration that "Women hold up half the sky." The book guides us through true stories of women who have survived unthinkable situations and, perhaps more importantly, steps that can be taken by governments, non-profit organizations and even individuals to improve conditions all over the world. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I devoured it and my daughter will read it next. She isn't always keen on the books I suggest — sheesh, is that an understatement! — but she left the slavery exhibit feeling the same sense of despair that I did. As soon as she's read it, we'll look at the resources listed in the back and see how we might make a difference together. 

You (and your teenagers) can learn more about Half the Sky here. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

One Egg, One Basket

Over the years, I have written a lot of marketing copy for financial services firms. So, I'm intimately familiar with the concept of "diversification." (how cool is that name?) defines it this way:

A risk management technique that mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio. 

My retirement savings, as modest as they are, benefit from this type of strategy (and, thank goodness, from the steerage of a so-much-smarter-about-money-than-I-am financial advisor). But it occurred to me recently that I forgot to apply the principle of diversification to a rather important part of my life. Parenting.

I am the mother of an only child.

There are certainly pros:

• Only one student's college tuition to plan for. (Although, one student means four years at about $50,000 per year, so this is no very great solace once I do the math.) 

• We only have to coordinate all-day field trips to one athlete's events. (I know moms who juggle hockey, dance, swim meets and softball on a regular basis.)

• We were able to afford a horse for our besotted equestrian offspring. (More than one, believe me, would be much more than impossible.)

• Travel, on the other hand, is still possible. After a child is two years old, their seat on an airplane is full fare — regardless of the size of their little tush. A weekend away or a family vacation becomes exponentially more expensive with multiple kids.

• I only have to keep track of one young person's unexplainable eating eccentricities. ("When did you stop liking Pop Tarts? Oh, I know. The week after I bought two double-sized boxes of them.")

• I only have to help with one person's homework. And no, geometry is decidedly not more fun the second time around.

• I only have to nag one person to keep her room clean. (And, in a related observation, I only have to re-make one person's bed on a regular basis.)

Then again, and especially these days, there are also cons. Big ones. 

• If I had hoped for a child who shared my love of acting, singing and dancing, well ... that show has opened and closed.

• If I wanted a daughter who would love my hometown, New York City, as I still do. No dice. She is the country cousin to my city mouse. 

• And, if I'm persona non gratis for some egregious maternal crime (like taking the video games off of someone's iPhone because she — shall we say — stretched the truth about playing them after hours), then I am thoroughly, completely, totally and universally despised.

Aye, there's the rub.

An old friend of mine, one whose intelligence I have always respected and admired, apparently put more care into planning all this than I did. With her four children (and several more now thanks to a recent remarriage), she has managed to enjoy all the ups even in times of downs. For example, when her eldest daughter was a teenage pill, her younger ones still doted on her. Now that they are teens themselves, their older sister is coming back around.

I love this friend very very much. But, I am very very jealous.

Of course, the situation puts undue pressure on my daughter as well. She has to be "the smart one," "the athletic one," "the kind-hearted one," "the artistic one." When it comes to siblings, there's no one else for her to share these daunting roles with. She has to be every type of superlative offspring all in one.

It's a little late now, but I confess that I sometimes daydream about my "other children," the ones who would remain sweet and affectionate and never fall out of love with me. Alas, all my eggs are in one basket. Actually, there's only one.

Good thing she's a good egg.