Monday, July 30, 2012

Back to Zumba, Ouch!

When the going gets tough, the tough go to Zumba. 

Or used to go anyway.

After five weeks off, I finally went back to the gym. Ouch! I am one hurtin' puppy. For the past three years, I've been a pretty consistent worker-outer. Dance classes (Zumba and Nia) 3-4 times a week, yoga 2-3 times. But, you wouldn't know it right now.

When school ended the third week of June, my teen daughter and I headed to Europe. We had a bat mitzvah in London, followed by a few days in Paris. Back in the states, I had to get three weeks worth of work done in a day and a half before we went up to Maine (along with my husband this time) for an annual sailing trip. It would have been lovely to go to the gym in between those back-to-back vacations. 

But, who am I kidding?

Now, you may think I spent my ten days abroad eating les bon bons and sipping le vin blanc and not exercising. Mais non, mon ami! All right, there were plenty of bon bons and wine, but there was also plenty of exercise. Let's see ...

We walked all over London. My daughter and our two young English friends walked from brunch in Mayfair to Oxford Street (and teen fashion mecca Primark), then from Oxford Street to St. Johns Wood. Not sure how many kilometres that was but it took us an hour and a half, and we simply had to stop for ice cream along the way.

I danced my tuchus off at the bat mitzvah. I was familiar with a lot of the music from Zumba and actually used some of the moves from my class out on the dance floor. It was extremely gratifying when an older gentleman who was once a dance instructor at New York's Tavern on the Green told his wife that I "had the moves." I've repeated the story several times. So many times, in fact, that my daughter asked, rolling her eyes, "Yeah, yeah, you're never gonna forget that one, are you Mom?"

We continued the vacation workout in Paris. We had just four days to cover ... well, pretty much everything. We walked to and up Montmartre, and climbed to the dome of Sacre Couer. We walked down 350 steps to the Catacombs. We walked the halls and gardens of Versailles. And, on our last full day in the city of lights, we walked up the Eiffel Tower. You see, three of the four elevators were out of order. So, we could stand on line for the only one in operation, or we could save €5 each and walk. About halfway up, suffering from a bit of acrophobia as well as muscle fatigue, I had the distinct feeling that the outside staircase (kind of like a never-ending industrial strength fire escape in a cage) was shaking. "No, Mo-o-om, it's not," groaned my daughter. She was right. The staircase wasn't shaking ... my legs were!

The view was magnificent, as we expected. I paid too much for a bottle of water and we took about a hundred pictures. Then we had to walk back down. Toward the end of our descent, a display showed the relative heights of various international structures. It also informed us that our climb had been the equivalent of going up and down a 43-story building. (It was probably a good thing that I didn't know that from the start.)

Our final Olympic-level vacation feat was dragging our overloaded luggage a mile — uphill — to the Gare du Nord to catch the train to Charles de Gaulle. Every muscle ached.

Every. Muscle. In. My. Body. Ached.

Then, a bit of jet lag, a bit of advertising copy for clients ... and we went sailing. I didn't do much (hoisted the mainsail along with all the other guests, hiked a little on an island). But, somehow or other, my back went out on our last morning. I  curled up painfully in the rear of the car for the drive home and limped around for another two weeks afterwards. My guess is that all of the Paris exertion caught up to me, exacerbated by the tiny "careful-not-to-hit-your-head" bunk in our schooner cabin. 

Isn't it fun getting older?

Extra Strength Tylenol is a wonderful thing. And finally, after a few pain-free days, I went back to Zumba. I was not very coordinated; I didn't know the new routines; I was drenched in sweat. But, here's the worst of it. In my weeks away, someone stole my spot! For three years (hello, three years, people!), I've stood in the second row, all the way on the left, near the stereo and the stacked step equipment. I liked my spot. I could see the instructor. I could see myself in the mirror. I was close to the action but not in the very first "look-at-me-cause-I'm-all-that" row.

Now, I'm stuck in the back, on the right. Boo.

It just goes to prove what I've always secretly feared, you can never never never stop working out. You must stay committed. You have to feel the burn. You have to drag your sorry booty to the gym or face the consequences.

You snooze, you lose ... your place at Zumba.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pass the (Microwave) Popcorn: Bunheads

We loved Gilmore Girls.

Wait, did I just write that in the past tense? I meant we love Gilmore Girls. Love, love, love, no letter d necessary. The series is still in syndication. Plus, my daughter has a collector's edition boxed set that Santa Claus brought two years ago. ("Mo-o-om!" she groans as though my continued belief in that jolly fat man is a direct assault on her teendom.)

We were late to the game with Gilmore Girls, despite much encouragement from my mother and my best friend and her then teen daughters. When we finally did jump into it, I think we watched the entire seven seasons, sometimes three or four episodes in one sitting, with barely a break for life's necessities (the bathroom, food or drink, school).

I could relate to Lorelei, the sometimes sarcastic single mother (although I'm happily married, I can snark with the best of them). I hoped that my daughter could relate to the bookish high school student, Rory. (She aspired to Harvard but ended up at Yale. With the show set in Connecticut, moving a character to New Haven was more convenient than Cambridge.) They were more than mother and daughter, they were best friends. I liked to think they were ... sigh ... us.

At one point, though, my own little scholar informed me that she was more like Lorelei and I was more like Rory. "Because," she told me, "I like to have fun." Implication? "You wouldn't know fun if it hit you in the face with a cream pie, mother dear."

Um, okay.

We mourned the loss of Gilmore Girls, but now have a new show to watch together. In real time. Bunheads.

Although after just six episodes, Bunheads hasn't picked up quite the same momentum, it is following a pretty familiar pattern. The little California town Paradise is filled with a carnival of quirky characters much like Gilmore's Stars Hollow. There's an entire dance class of Rory's, although they're more focused on getting into the Joffrey than an Ivy League. There's an elegant, exacting older woman with a sharp tongue. And, there's a clever, quippy heroine whose constant cultural allusions spin the heads of the good people of the town. Even if ABC Family hadn't promoted the new show's creators, we would recognize Bunheads as the natural born daughter of Gilmore Girls.

On this show, Lorelei Gilmore has morphed into Michelle Simms, a Vegas showgirl who, in an alcohol-ized haze, marries an earnest admirer, Hubbell Flowers. He takes her away to his lovely home overlooking the sea, which (unbeknownst to Michelle) is also the home of his overbearing mother, ex-ballerina now dance teacher, Fanny. The mother-in-law doesn't accept the new bride; the town doesn't accept the new bride. Hubbell dies in a car accident, leaving all of his property to said new bride and leaving us with the show's ultimate set-up. Can jaded Vegas girl survive and thrive in small coastal town? Can disillusioned dancer find her inner prima ballerina by mentoring a bunch of starry-eyed bunheads? Can creator Amy Sherman-Palladino hit another home run? And, most important, can they possibly cram any more one-liners into a single 60-minute show?

The fast-talking dancer Michelle is played by Broadway superstar Sutton Foster. Foster has already won two Tony Awards, for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes. She's sweet and funny and when they let her sing and dance (as they did in a couple of dream sequences two episodes ago), it's magic!

The show's grande dame, like Gilmore's before it, is Kelly Bishop, another Tony Award winner, in her case for A Chorus Line. She was my all-time favorite element of Gilmore Girls, so I'm happy to bask in her eloquent sneers once more.

The ill-fated Hubbel was played by Alan Ruck. His untimely death saddened me, even though it was a critical plot twist. Ruck has had a successful career since (including a long stretch on Spin City), but for me he will always be Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller's hapless friend, who murdered a 1961 Ferrari in a plea for his father's attention.

The corps of teen bunheads is great too. Their dialogue and age-appropriate angst rings oh-so right on. Crushes, school, diets, parental issues, sneaking out at night, sneaking a beer (or four). And, they are all accomplished dancers. For a little  taste, take a look at Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles) in last week's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)."

So, is Bunheads simply Gilmore Girls in toe shoes? Perhaps. But here's what's more important. At a time when there is very little we can agree upon (and still less for us to do together), Bunheads provides an hour a week when my daughter and I can meet halfway, curl up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn, and pretend we are still (like Lorelei and Rory) best friends.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hacking the Grade

Do you remember Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Before he sets out to enjoy the greatest hooky every played, Ferris hacks into his high school's attendance records, changing his 9 absences to 2.

"I wanted a car," Matthew Broderick deadpans to the camera. "I got a computer."

This morning, I thought of this classic and funny scene from that classic and funny movie when I read a story in the news. It appears that in Pennsylvania (in the Northwestern Lehigh School District, to be precise), there was a breach of cyber security. The district's computer system was broken into and grades for two students were changed. The thing is, it wasn't one of the kids who did the hacking.

It was their mother. OMG!

My initial reaction was, "Why didn't I think of that?" 


My next reaction was, "Whoa. How did we get here?" We all talk about helicopter parents and, in my community, most of us do hover more than we should. But, surely there's a line, isn't there? Changing a grade, infiltrating a school's database? Yeah, I would say it's pretty clear that a line or two was crossed.

I know, I know. There's so much more pressure these days. It's tougher to get into the best colleges. Competition is fierce. Blah, blah, blah. Apparently, moms are fierce too. I come from a long line of mothers willing to go to bat for their daughters. And, I've sent the occasional email when one of my daughter's grades started to drop. But, I don't condone cheating. And, even if I knew enough to commit a cyber crime, I certainly wouldn't do it. Sheesh!

A friend pointed out recently that parents used to be on the teacher's side. He's right. If a high school student got a bad grade, they got grounded. Now, they get a bad grade, they get an attorney. We're not really setting up a scenario in which kids are encouraged to listen or follow rules. When my daughter doesn't like a particular faculty member (and, believe me, teens can get very mean and very personal when it comes to griping about their teachers), I try not only to help her be kind and compassionate but also to recognize that, like it or not, that teacher is an authority figure and deserves attention and respect.

Technology has made it easier than ever to cheat. Unsure about a date on a history test? Simply raise your hand to go to the bathroom and Google it on your smart phone. (Phones were supposed to be kept in lockers at my daughter's middle school. Guess where the girls put them? Inside those expensive UGG boots they all wear.) Want to get a copy of a quiz before you take it? No problem, your BFF can send you a picture of it by text. And, we've all read stories recently about brainy kids who were paid to take the SATs for other people. 

I even have issues with paid test preparation courses. I know firsthand that the girls in my high school who could afford those classes had a distinct advantage over those of us who couldn't. There's no law or even rule being broken there, but aren't we sending a message? Money can buy good grades.

So, what kind of message is "Hacker Mom" sending? Yikes!

Now that she's been caught, here's what we can learn from her. People, listen up ...

Unlawful use of a computer, computer trespassing and altering data are felonies. That's right: fel-o-nies. (Allegedly she didn't realize that what she was doing was illegal. Okay then.) She is out on bail and faces up to 42 years in jail and/or a $90,000 fine. When Ferris did it, it was seriously funny. In real life, it's a serious crime.

And, here's one of the most amazing parts of the story. Her son's grade was changed from a 98 to a 99.

Let me tell you, if my daughter comes home with a 98, I won't be committing a fraud. I'll be too busy opening the champagne.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Model Moms

No, this post is not about Heidi Klum or Gisele Bundchen or even Kate Moss. I'm talking about a different kind of modeling. I'm talking about modeling the best behavior for our daughters. 

It is something we are advised to do from the time they are tiny — but oh-so-watchful — tykes. At that point, we were showing as well as telling our young ones to fasten seatbelts, look both ways at an intersection, eat vegetables. "Do as we say and as we do," we demonstrated. And, in all honesty, it was pretty cut and dry back then. "Cross at the green. Not in between." Get it? Got it. Good.

Now, there's a whole lot of grey area. And, as my daughter and her friends negotiate the treacherous waters of teenhood, I see moms modeling some very poor behavior. I'm not talking about drugs or alcohol (although there's plenty of that). I'm talking about how people treat each other.

The stakes are higher and too many mothers (in my tidy little town at least) seem to be pulled into situations that would be better left to the younger generation. Yes of course, I want my daughter to be popular. But, I'm not going to undo all of the insight, maturity and compassion I've picked up since I was fourteen myself. Alas, some moms seem to regress pretty quickly right back to their own junior high days.

For example, at my daughter's recent middle school graduation, I overheard a disturbing conversation. Two mothers sat above me in the bleachers. They were both slim and tan, nicely pressed and dressed. Here's what they said. (The names have been changed to protect ... well, whomever.)

Mom 1: "So are you all set for Katelyn's graduation party this weekend?"

Mom 2: "Almost. But, can you believe it? The other night, she gets a call from Molly." 

Mom 1: "No!"

Mom 2: "Yes! So, she says ..." (Here, her voice gets a little higher, as though she's imitating the unfortunate Molly.) "Oh, you didn't invite me to your party. Is it okay if I come?"

Mom 1: (laughing) "No!"

Mom 2: (laughing) "Yes! Can you believe it?"

Mom 1: "What nerve! I hope she said 'No.'"

Mom 2: "Well, duh!"

Moms 1 and 2: (laughing in unison)

At this point, I think they realized that I was listening, so they continued their discussion more softly. Also, one of them had to text her husband. And,the processional was starting. Probably a good thing, because I was finding it very difficult to keep my mouth shut.

Now, obviously I don't have the backstory. Katelyn may be a perfectly lovely young lady. Molly may be a terrible little bee-yotch. But, let me tell you ...

That's not the impression I got.

Talk about a teachable moment. If Molly was willing to swallow her pride and ask to be included, good for her. If my daughter was having a party and someone felt left out, I would use the situation to help her practice empathy. Not only would we include Molly, but we would make sure that she had a great time and was included ever after. 

Instead, here were two (allegedly grownup) queen bees who were very satisfied, delighted even, that their daughters were also queen bees. What I heard were two prideful mothers who were relishing their daughters' popularity and making fun of someone less fortunate. Their laughter was tinged with cruelty, and the underlying message was "How could that loser think she could come to the party?"

Y'know, for Molly's sake (and Katelyn's too), I hope I'm wrong. 

But, I was there. I really think I'm right.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summertime, and The Schedule Ain't Easy

For the last three summers, my now teenage daughter has gone to sleep-away camp. Not just any camp, mind you, but pony camp — all horses, all the time. Three weeks of unbridled (get it?) equestrian adventure. Three weeks surrounded by girls as horse-crazy as she is. For her, those three weeks each summer flew by.  For me?

Not so much.

Oh sure, it was nice to go out with friends at the spur of the moment. It was nice not to have to play chauffeur. It was nice to spend some quality time with the spouse. But mostly, I thought about my daughter, missed my daughter, wrote letters and sent packages to my daughter, and pretty much counted down the days and eventually hours and minutes until I'd have my daughter back.

Two words: Sucker Mom.

This past year, we finally made the monumental (monumentally monetary, that is) decision to purchase a horse. Yikes! In doing the rather daunting math associated with said purchase, my husband and I assumed that the several thousand dollars we have spent on camp would no longer be an expense — and this would make a dent in the costs of acquiring and maintaining the gigantic new pet. Our daughter, on the other hand assumed she would still be going to camp. Not only that, she assumed that we would also send the horse!

Three words: No Way, Jose.

After many months of pleading, cajoling and downright whining, she finally got the hint. Camp started yesterday ... without her.

Now, lest you think my daughter is having a deprived summer of Dickensian proportions, let me give you some perspective:

We went to London. 
We went to Paris. 
We went sailing on a windjammer in Penobscot Bay. 
She's taking a digital photography course. 
She's in a book club. 
She rides virtually every day
She has a horse show virtually every weekend.
She swims. 
She goes to the beach. 
She goes out on our boat. 
She has sleepovers. 
She has electronics. (Oy vey, does she have electronics!)

Have you ever heard the world's tiniest violin? This ain't no Little Nell, folks.

Of course, with all this summertime activity, there has been very little time for ninth grade required reading or bed-making. And, it also comes with much scheduling chaos for yours truly. "What do you mean you're supposed to be in New Hampshire next week not this week? But that conflicts with Grandma's visit, our tickets for Annie, and my agency's big new business presentation."

Then there's all the driving, lots and lots of driving. Thanks to my daughter's schedule, I can now recite the location of every  coffee shop that has WiFi in a five town radius. I have become extremely adept at juggling pick-ups and drop-offs and conference calls. (Oh my!)

But after a long day of enabling my daughter, when I finally fall into bed — and fall, by the way, is the exact word I'm looking for — I sleep better. Much better.

Because she is not in some bunk in Vermont; she is right here, under my roof.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Picture This: Realistic Body Images

When I started in the advertising industry — oh, about a million years ago — we hired a group of professionals called "retouchers." One of my jobs as Junior Copywriter (and all-around agency go-fer) was to drop off film that needed to be cleaned up or enhanced. I would leave the agency, in my suit and pumps and silk tie (really), and walk downtown to a little hole-in-the-wall office filled with these talented individuals. They worked in semi-darkness, editing photography by hand on a light board while they chain-smoked.

All right, I confess I may have exaggerated a bit about the timing. But, there are several clues in the above paragraph which will place my story firmly in the last millenium. Let's see ... there's my wardrobe (yikes!), the fact that I hand-delivered ad material (no email, folks), and the amount of tobacco being consumed on the job.

Most of all, the fact that we relied on this particular group of craftsmen (and less so, women) to make our photography just so. I watched, fascinated, as a reflection was taken out (or added in), as a stray hair miraculously disappeared or as a crisp white cigarette, complete with a wisp of smoke, was placed in a model's posed but empty fingers.

Everything changed when ad agency art directors migrated to computers. Retouching, along with typesetting, is now done right on the desktop. Entire subsets of the advertising design community have disappeared.

And, my teenage daughter can edit a photo on her MacBook faster and probably more believably than those highly skilled people I met years ago.

The fashion industry has always presented idealized images of women's bodies — whether this was accomplished by models who starved themselves, old-fashioned retouching, or today's digital options. If anything, though, I think modern technology has made the situation more extreme. It is simply too easy to nip and tuck a waist, enlarge a bosom, remove any trace of a wrinkle, bulge or blemish.

Even for non-models, it's tempting to make aesthetic adjustments. A coworker once asked one of my art directors to change her hair on a headshot so she wouldn't "look like a tomato." Um, okay.

Wanting to look your best is one thing. But, this becomes problematic when our tween and teen daughters are bombarded by images of impossibly thin, impossibly curvy and impossibly perfect girls. The media's obsession with these models-turned-avatars leads to body image issues and eating disorders.

I always say that once you're a mother, you are everyone's mother. So, I take great pride in a fourteen-year-old girl and her friends who have recently stood up to the media and demanded that the practice of altering models' bodies stop. Young Julia Bluhm created an online protest movement through, targeting Seventeen magazine and its practice of using Photoshop to make its teen models skinnier and sexier. After collecting more than 80,000 signatures and being picked up by the major news media, Bluhm and her friends have achieved some success. Seventeen has agreed to a "Body Peace Treaty." They will significantly reduce the instances of editing models' bodies and faces, and they will post un-altered photos on their Tumblr blog so readers can examine any changes for themselves.

Not an unequivocal victory, but a very major step — driven by a young teenager. Bravo!!!

Bluhm's work is impressive (no wonder I'm so proud of her!), but her message needs to be reinforced continually. This is a great opportunity for moms (and dads) to talk to their own teens about the media and fashion industries and the affect they have on how we think about our bodies and faces and selves.

The truth is (and it's a truth we need to point out to the impressionable readers of these magazines), no one actually looks like the pictures we see. Human skin is not that flawless. Boobs are not that big. Waists are not that small. These, granted gorgeous, girls have all been technologically improved. Like The Six-Million Dollar Man, the fashion industry has made them "better than they are."

A very cool quote from a former supermodel (who would, shockingly enough, be too big to make it on the runway today): 

"I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford."
                                            ... Cindy Crawford

What a wonderful world it would be, if all women (tweens, teens and even middle-aged moms) could make peace with their bodies.

Thank you, Julia, for this important first step. You go, girl!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Whatever Happened to True Love?

When you're on vacation, you get news in fits and starts. My teen daughter and I were out of the country when the Supreme Court passed Obamacare. We were also away when writer and director Nora Ephron died.

And, how do you think we felt when we realized that we had missed the year's hottest scoop, biggest story, a major piece of news:

Katie Holmes was divorcing Tom Cruise. OMG.

Where did the past six years go? It seems like only yesterday that Tom announced his love for Katie on Oprah. He was like a kid, practically jumping up and down. Oh wait ... he was jumping up and down. On Winfrey's sofa. His unbridled glee will certainly go down as one of TV's most ridiculous moments.

There have been plenty of photo opportunities for the couple since their 2006 wedding. But despite all the weirdness: Scientology, their whirlwind romance, Scientology, the age difference, Scientology, Suri's high heels, Scientology (did I mention Scientology?), they seemed to be a cohesive unit.

"I've found the man of my dreams," said Katie.

"I'm just happy and I have been since I met her," said Tom.

"Tom is the most incredible man in the world," said Katie.

"What we have is very special," said Tom.

And the Oscar for most convincing performance as a lovesick newlywed goes to ...

But all good things (and most Hollywood marriages) come to an end. Despite TomKat's assurances that they would "always be in the honeymoon phase," they are now going their separate ways. According to the bits and pieces of media we were able to understand while we were in France, Katie's decision to leave Tom took him by surprise. We know this because his publicist asserted that he was "deeply saddened." Most reporters are assuming that Holmes made the decision to split up in order to prevent Suri from being sucked into the Church of Scientology. But, is she really safe? And, what of the divorce settlement? How much of Cruise's $250 million fortune would go to his ex-wife and daughter?

It was difficult to finish our vacation in Paris with so many questions unanswered. But, we struggled through.

Back at home, we were relieved to learn that TomKat (or now, I guess, Tom ... Kat) reached an "amicable" agreement in what must surely be a new world's record for speedy divorce settlements. Quelle relief!

We were also reassured about the nature of true love. While we will always be sorry (and a little confused) about the failure of a relationship as thoughtful and balanced and mature as that of Cruise and Holmes, we can take solace in the solid celebrity love affairs that are still thriving, like ...

Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, who have "just arrived in Japan for some much-needed time away."

Ah, "wuv, twue wuv."

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Peace Train

I love to travel, although I have neither the time nor the financial resources to do it as much as I'd like. I've always believed that all you have to do is open yourself to new places and people and experiences, and wondrous things will happen.

My daughter — whether she realizes it or not — is very fortunate. Last week marked her second trip to the U.K. (I didn't make it there until I was 28, the same year I learned to drive. Oh, but that's a different story.) She's been to Mexico, Canada, St. Croix, Bermuda, the Bahamas, England and now France. Paris to be specific.

On this trip, we happened upon several bigger than life (or, at least, bigger than us) moments. We were simply in the right place at the right time.

For example, on our first day in London, a bit bleary-eyed, we went to Waterloo to meet an old friend for lunch. It was a typical train station: fast food carts, ticket kiosks, mechanical arrival and departure boards. All of a sudden, we looked around and thought "Toto, we're not in the U.S. anymore." Amongst the business commuters and average citizens waiting for trains, there were dozens and eventually hundreds of men in morning coats and top hats, accompanied by women in fancy dresses and matching fascinators (those frilly, floral little headbands that drew so much attention at Kate and William's wedding last year). We passed more than one gentlemen with an elaborate rosette on his lapel, reading "Royal Enclosure." 

Turns out, they were catching the train to Ascot. How cool is that? As Americans, all we could say was, "Whoa."

A few days later, we were walking along Whitehall, having toured Parliament with our friends, and arrived just as they were starting the ceremonial Changing of the Horse Guards. We hadn't planned it that way (in fact, we were running an hour or so late on our self-guided walking tour). My daughter was, needless to say, in horse heaven. 

And, after much bat mitzvah celebration and a whirlwind of touristy sites, we caught the Eurostar to Paris. It's incredible how quick and convenient it is. In half the time it takes to travel to New York from Boston, we went from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris' Gare du Nord. With comfortable seats, great scenery (except, of course, when you're actually under the channel), and delicious snacks.

When we arrived, there was a media frenzy waiting for our train. (Of course, we were disappointed that the paparazzi were following us. Um, just kidding.) It turned out, as we read the "Welcome ..." banners that were lined up side by side with the TV crews, we weren't the only ones who had taken the Eurostar that morning. We had been traveling with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, former long-time prisoner and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although we were eager to get to our hotel, we stopped to watch as the diminutive political powerhouse was greeted by the crowd.

Later, we stumbled into Cathedrals just as choirs of nuns began to sing, walked by Shakespeare & Co. on the left bank during a standing-room-only book reading, enjoyed countless buskers on the metro and in cafes. Even watched a model being primped for a photo shoot at Place de la Concord.

While all of these added to the Parisian ambience, I think that traveling with Madame Suu Kyi made the greatest impression. It gave me an opportunity to explain some pretty important concepts to my daughter. Like prisoners of conscience, house arrest, human rights and non-violent demonstration. Quite the bonus on top of our exceedingly pleasant train ride, n'est-ce pas?

And, for me, the incident and our subsequent conversations underscored what is perhaps the most important benefit of travel with children. If more people had the chance to visit other places and absorb other cultures, I really believe there would be greater understanding and a greater motivation for peaceful coexistence. 

It's a pretty powerful way to help our kids realize that the world isn't "us and them," it's just "us."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Shopping: The International Language of Teen

I've joked that my daughter's and my trip to London and Paris last week was a "greatest hits" tour. Indeed, between the compressed schedule and all of our wonderful bat mitzvah commitments, there was no time to dilly-dally. We had to cram as much into as few days as possible.

On Saturday, we had four hours or so between services at the synagogue and the big celebration that evening. I considered suggesting a trip to the Tate Modern or a visit to Kensington Palace, but I knew what would make my little globe-trotter happy. 

Shopping! And, we knew just who to ask for advice. 

The younger sister of the bat mitzvah girl is a determined tweenage fashionista. She plans to make a career as a designer and I look forward not only to buying some of her certain-to-be fabulous ensembles, but also to attending the retrospective of her work they will someday present at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute. Until then, we will have to settle for her expert insider tips.

She immediately suggested Oxford Street if we were looking for the latest trends. And, specifically, she encouraged us to visit one very special place.

Now, I've always loved England: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, high tea, nice manners. When I think of the nation's capital, I picture Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Westminster Cathedral, those adorable red phone booths. But now and forever more, when I hear the word "London," I will think of ... Primark.

Primark is a mecca for London's hip and stylish, a vast, colorful temple of overstocked, underpriced frippery. Anything you're looking for — from lacy lingerie to sky-high heels, shorts, tank tops, pocketbooks, flip flops, mini dresses, maxi dresses and dresses somewhere in between — at prices that start at £1 and £2, and go up to maybe £25 for a not-so-very-Burberry trench coat. 

This isn't exactly investment shopping. Will the stuff you buy last long? Oh, I sincerely doubt it. But, that's jolly good and hunky dory because those stonewashed, acid-rinsed, low ride, leopard print jeans are only going to be in style for the next five minutes anyway. And, speaking of the latest and greatest must-have item, my daughter was desperate for bright orange denims. We had looked everywhere (trust me, everywhere, everywhere, every-frrrrkin'-where) but to no avail. And, you guessed it.

Right there, right on the ground floor of Primark, right between the career blouses and the ladies' pajamas, was an entire ... rack ... of ... (wait for it, wait for it) ... bright orange jeans! OMG!!!

Having spent considerably more time shopping than we had planned, we quickly gathered our purchases: the holy grail of pants, some shorts, a cotton shirt, some bras, and a tunic for me (yes, even I was not immune to the power of Primark). I suggested that my daughter choose a size or two larger than she would wear in the states to be on the safe side.

Back at the hotel, we tried on our treasures. My tunic, which was an XL, fit as though it was an XS. It was silky polyester printed to look like a classic scarf. And, it did look like a classic scarf — like a classic scarf wrapped tightly around an enormous sausage, thank you very much. I was only out a few pounds so I decided to bring it home and donate it to the school's thrift shop. Oh well.

Unfortunately, I was not going to get off that easy. My daughter tried on her jeans and, alas, found that they too were cut much smaller than they were labeled. Everything was, in fact. "All right," I told her. "We'll go back to Primark after brunch tomorrow."

For our second Primark pilgrimage, we brought both our young British friends along. Their parents deserved a bit of a break after all the festivities, and it gave the girls a chance to hang out. We arranged a place to rendezvous, and I went in search of customer service. For future reference, it's in a hot, dismal corner of the store behind Primark's gigantic shoe department. One hour and fifteen minutes. I was on line for one hour and fifteen minutes. That's one hour and fifteen minutes that I will never get back again. 

Meanwhile, the girls were going gaga over all their options. Once I left customer service, I found three very happy campers and we quickly paid for everything and moved on. 'Farewell, Primark,' I thought to myself. 'At least I won't have to come back here until my next trip to London.'


Back at the hotel that evening, my daughter tried everything on again. At home, she wears a size 3/4, so she had originally bought a pair of size 6s. This time, to be safe, she had grabbed a pair of 10s. We were shocked to see that they were at least as tight as the first pair. Shocked, that is, until we realized that the hanger had said 10 but the pants were a 6. Oh no.

Our train to Paris was the next day at 11:30 am. I pulled out my iPad and checked Primark's hours. They opened at 9. If we were there early and if the customer service line wasn't too crowded, we just might make it. So, I spent my last morning in one of my favorite cities in the world, once again, at Primark.

"You know," I told my daughter, as we settled into our seats on the train a bit later, the third and final pair of orange jeans packed safely in her duffel. "You do have the best mother in the world."

"I know," she smiled. And, I think she actually believed it. For a full hour or so.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Teen's Speech

We received the first "Save the Date" email over a year ago. Our good friends who live in London not only invited us to the bat mitzvah of their eldest girl, but my daughter was asked to make a special "friendship speech."

My husband bowed out of the journey; we had an annual sailing trip scheduled for the following week, and it was just too much time away. But, my daughter and I were really excited to go. Although she had been to London before, she was very young and remembers just bits and pieces (like the pool at our Cotswolds hotel and the trampoline in our friends' garden). Our only worry was whether or not she would be out of school yet. With even a handful of snow days to make up, we would have had to fly to the U.K. Friday night, attend services and the party Saturday, and fly back Sunday. Ugh!

Luckily, we had a snow-free winter — a rare and wonderful thing for New England. I told the bat mitzvah girl that it was a good sign. (I didn't mention anything about global warming.)

As I've already stated, we have known about the bat mitzvah and the speech for more than a year. So, my daughter, being a typical teenager, planned exactly what dress she would wear, exactly which shoes, exactly how she would do her hair. 

When did she write her speech? 

That would be exactly on the plane going over. On my iPad.

In her defense, we had already made a list of all the things she wanted to mention. She had also agreed that a poem would be the best approach. But, as a mom who likes to do things well in advance of deadlines, I was starting to stress.

As per usual, my daughter pulled it off. (I don't know why I'm surprised. Her entire middle school career was built on last minute papers and projects for which she somehow always earned A's.) She wrote the poem quickly, and I proofread it and made some suggestions. I did insist that she rehearse it in our hotel room a few times. Other than that, she had it covered. (Her exact words would be: "It's covered, Mo-o-om." Complete with an eye roll. But, I digress.)

Our young friend read her Torah portion beautifully in services and the party was fantastic. There were elaborate candy-covered topiary centerpieces on the tables. (In a brilliant move, paper bags were passed out as the evening ended so that these works of edible art could be broken down and taken home to enjoy later.) There was a DJ with two back-up dancers, a photo booth (which, I have to say, was enjoyed by many an adult as well as the kids), sparkle tattoos, sunglasses, hats. And, the entire gala took place in the stunning St. Pancras Hotel, a place so grand and glorious and otherworldly that it was used as a set for the Harry Potter movies.

When it was her turn, my daughter got up, took the microphone, and though she confessed later to being a little nervous, she was splendid. All-in-all, the teen's speech — and the celebration itself — was a great success.

Here now, for your reading pleasure is ... 

"Ode to a Bat Mitzvah Girl"

On a New York morning in 1975,
(Many years before we were even alive,)
Our mothers met with very little fuss.
Think about it — they were the same age as us!
They were forever friends, just like the song,
Through colleges, weddings and some years in Hong Kong
My mom heard you'd arrived, she just had to meet you;
It would take a whole weekend to properly greet you.
She flew off to London, didn't take me with her.
(Excuse me, what am I, chopped liver?)
But, that didn't stop us from becoming fast friends!
In New York and Massachusetts, our playdates had no end!
In 2003, we visited — oh, what a scene!
The London Eye, pony rides and that keen trampoline.
I was only 6, you just 5 and your sister was 3,
But, no doubt about it — she kept up with you and me!
Pretty soon, you came to visit us in Marblehead.

We had loads of fun, all three of us in one bed.

And that first trip was the time I absolutely swore,

Nothing could hold us — not a lock, not a door.

I would give you a midnight tour of my house;

You and your sis promised to be quieter than a mouse.

But through the duration of that entire six-day trip

I never once hosted such a tour, what a gyp!

My alarm clock malfunctioned without a single qualm,

Was it fate, was it luck or was it ... my mom?

We also went to the club to swim in the pool.

Oh how good the water felt, so nice and so cool!

The beach was such fun, the ocean great too,

With all of its colors, deep greens and sea blue.

We all cruised the harbor, you even drove the boat.

Trust me, you drove better than my dad, that old goat.

The many years have merged into what feels like just a few.

Each year, we have changed and we just grew and grew.

Through thick and through thin, we have stayed special pals,

From the U.K., from the U.S., we are fab-u-lous gals!

We may have our differences, we may have our sames.
(How cool you and my mom share your first names!)

So whether I say tomato or you say to-mah-to,

I say potato and you say po-tah-to,

There's just one last thing to say on your bat mitzvah weekend.

Mazel tov, mazel tov, I'm so glad you're my friend!