Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Let Sleeping Daughters Lie

Today is Yom Kippur. It's the holiest day of the year for my Jewish friends. It's also a day of atonement. Well, in the great karmic universe (or at least in my house), I must have a lot to atone for. Fasting would be a picnic compared to what I'm dealing with.

In recognition of the holiday, there's no school, so my daughter slept in. I opened the door a couple of times (to drop off clean laundry, not to spy on her or invade her space). She was asleep in the jeans and sweater she wore yesterday. She was lying on top of her comforter and under a small quilt that usually stays at the foot of her bed. Her abandoned book was beside her.

Apparently my letting her stay up late to read meant that she got to forego all civilized bedtime niceties. No soft pajamas, no snuggling under the sheets and covers. Most likely, no face washing or teeth brushing. (I didn't ask, because (a) I'd really rather not know and (b) I'd really really rather not deal with her reaction to my question.)

She slept until about ten o'clock. By then, I had gone for a walk, showered, dressed, had coffee and breakfast, prepared for three conference calls, edited some layouts. When she did finally rouse herself, I got a half-hearted "I'm up," from the base of the staircase. I responded with a friendly request that she come upstairs to my office so we could look at my calendar and decide when I would drive her to the stable. Apparently, she didn't hear me.

A little later, I checked on her. She was still in the same outfit, curled up on the couch with my iPad. I offered breakfast, but she declined. I then offered to help her fix her printer. This entailed a good thirty minutes at her desk with various manuals, CDs and online HELP. 

While I played tech support, I asked her to put down the iPad and, to her credit, she did. Instead of trawling about through Tumblr and Facebook, she lay on her bed. "Don't you have homework?" I asked. She shrugged and gave me one of those non-answers, like "Later," or "I've got it covered." So, I handed her the World Cultures text book. She groaned quite audibly, but started.

Finally, the printer was working with a minor caveat. It seems that it only works from the admin account on her laptop, not from her account. The admin account is password-protected, and it's where I manage the dreaded parental controls. Sore subject, to say the optimal least. We'll have to do some additional detective work to figure out how she can print. But, I felt relatively good because the printer was working again.

My daughter? Not so much.

She made a few unsavory remarks under her breath and slammed her way out of the room. 

Then I lost it.

I hate it when I lose it, but there are certain buttons that no one knows how to press like my daughter does. Is she grateful to have a nice laptop and printer (not to mention access to the iPad that was — in theory — my fiftieth birthday present)? No. Does she feel fortunate to be going to her beloved stable to be with her beloved horse later today? No. Will she ever appreciate all that I've done and do for her? No. No. No.

It's infuriating sometimes. 

Now, I am a problem-solver by nature, so I try to figure out where I went wrong, and — more importantly — how I might course correct. (Or should I "atone?") But, I am absolutely stymied. We have long talks; she agrees to change her attitude. Sometimes, we even seem to make progress. Eventually, though, I'm back where I started: deeply frustrated and trying to keep my cool. Now, I have to decide whether I go down and say I'm sorry for yelling, wait for her to apologize to me (which she will do, you can count on it, as soon as she needs something from me) or just ignore the entire episode.

Regardless, when she's asleep tonight (hopefully in pj's this time), I'll sneak in and look at her. If she's sleeping soundly enough, I'll give her a kiss. Despite the ups and downs, the raised voices and rolled eyes, I'm still smitten.

In my heart of hearts, I know my daughter is still in there somewhere.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Truth Is

When my daughter was a toddler, a colleague of mine — with no rug rats of his own — liked to spoil her. He helped me pick out souvenirs on business trips. He made her extraordinary custom birthday party invitations. He returned from Disney World with the pinkest, frilliest, sparkliest princess hat he could find. 

He clearly loved kids, so one day I suggested he and his partner think about having some of their own.

"Oh no," he objected. "That would be way too hard."

I tried to reassure him and he eventually shrugged and said, "Well, I guess the most important thing would just be honesty. Never lie to them. Always tell the truth."

There was another parent in the room with us at the time, and he and I both choked.

"Are you kidding?" I managed to say.

"I lie to my kids all the time," our colleague added.

The childless friend was surprised and we quickly filled him in. On top of the tallest tales: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, there were countless smaller stretchings of the truth every day. Sometimes for the child's own good. More often, to preserve the parent's sanity.

"Sorry honey, we're all out of Oreos."

Now that my daughter is a teenager, it's harder to avoid the truth. Tell her there are no Cheese Puffs left and she'll go and look for herself. Try to keep a private conversation with her father private and prepare to face a raised eyebrow at best, followed by unrelenting nagging until you give in and 'fess up. Somehow, between the ages of five and fifteen, my daughter has developed a finely tuned bullsh*t meter. She knows when I'm trying to cover something up and she will not rest until the truth comes out.

She's not alone. Teens these days don't want a whitewashed version of the world around them. They want truth, T-R-U-T-H. Their favorite musician just went into rehab? No problem. They not only want the juicy details, but the star's flaws make them more alluring. It isn't so much that teen fans want to emulate their idols' bad behavior either. It's more about being "real."

On Facebook, they leaves posts on each other's walls that start with the words: "Truth is ..." Then they add some private joke or personal message. It could be funny or sweet or silly. The point is, it's "truth." 

The same principle holds for YouTube videos. My generation may watch reality shows on TV. (Truth is ... I've been known to pour a glass of pinot and cringe along with The Real Housewives of New York. For the record, as a native New Yorker I can assure you that there is nothing "real" about them.) But, my daughter's friends would rather watch homemade videos of less-than-beautiful people telling it as they see it. Anything too slick, too scripted, too produced and they tune out. Truth is, it's not truth.

I find it interesting that my daughter is reaching (if not already at) an age when lying becomes more and more of an issue. I was an extremely "good girl" when I was her age, but I was still an accomplished liar. (Thankfully, my own adolescent untruths were not about sex or drugs or alcohol — they were mainly about fabricated sleepovers in order to see midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) 

There's a certain amount of vigilance that comes with parenting a teen. High school started just three weeks ago and I've already heard tales of students feigning illness in order to "ditch." I am trying to give my daughter the benefit of the doubt, but there's a part of me waiting to catch her. When (not if) I do, I'm hoping it is something relatively harmless. A mild act of filial rebellion, not a major felony.

Just as I want honesty from her, she wants to know the truth about me too. I tend to be a perfectionist, and it's hard to face up to my own weaknesses. Then again, my daughter is very quick to find my flaws. I might as well admit when I'm wrong or just don't know the answers.

Truth is ... she'll find reasons to roll her eyes anyway. I might as well keep it "real."

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I was so thrilled when I found out that my baby was a girl. Even though I was a pregnant woman of "advanced maternal age," which meant that we underwent a battery of prenatal testing, my husband and I chose to wait and learn our child's gender the old-fashioned way. Somehow, having the doctor say "It's a ... (insert 'boy' or 'girl' here as appropriate)" seemed more exciting than finding out via ultrasound or amniocentesis.

Well, my doctor rewrote the script a tiny bit. "You have a daughter!" he announced. The effect (a quick gasp and many tears) was the same.

As she grew from baby to toddler to child, many people commented on how much my daughter looked like me. And, I had great hopes that she would inherit all my positive traits. Reading and writing and collecting dolls and loving musical theatre. Even my addiction to chocolate was welcome.

Back then, it did not occur to me that she would eventually have to deal with womanly concerns like finding a comfortable strapless bra, walking in heels, getting your period the day you're supposed to go on a beach date. Or ... that emotional roller coaster females have to deal with.

That's right. I'm talking, of course, about PMS. Putting up with Men's Sh*t.

We coined that phrase about twenty years ago when I worked at a very cool new media ad agency in Cambridge, MA. There were only twelve of us in the office and we were all women. The CEO of the agency (headquartered elsewhere)  kept pressuring us to hire some men because he didn't think our clients — mainly technology companies — would want to work with so many "girls."

On top of that attitude at work, most of us had to deal with husbands or boyfriends or, in my case, a fianc√© — most of whom displayed the classic symptoms of PMS: moodiness and irritability.

And, while any emotional or physical changes women might experience only last a few days, these men seemed to have license to behave erratically all month long. Honestly, I don't know one married woman who doesn't complain about her husband's mood swings. We all tip-toe around them. And, sadly, we teach our daughters to do so too.

Besides any gender tension on the home front (you cannot tell me that there's no such thing as male menopause), my daughter is at an age where she's starting to see gender bias and inequality in many different places.

In politics, for example, where we have yet to see a woman president or vice president. Or where an almost entirely male congress is attempting to legislate women's health and reproductive rights.

In the media, where even the most accomplished female journalists are pressured into getting cosmetic surgery. The lines that would symbolize experience and wisdom on a man's face are strictly verboten when we're talking about an anchorwoman.

In school, where her freshman Honors English reading list started with David Copperfield (by and about a man), then moved on to Of Mice and Men (there's a woman character but she pretty much gets squished to death). Next is Lord of the Flies (boys behaving badly). But hark! What heroine through yonder window breaks? They will read Romeo and Juliet this spring, written by a man but showcasing one very gutsy young lady.

The effects of Putting up with Men's Sh*t are significant and will last longer than the effects of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. It seems to me that society's emphasis on total male domination is a lot more frightening than one teen's estrogen levels. Even if that teen is mine.

Now, I'm not saying that my daughter doesn't encounter her own emotional bumps in the road. When she snaps at me for no reason, I remind myself that she's just going through another type of PMS. 

Pre-Maturity Syndrome.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hold On To Fifteen As Long As You Can

My daughter turned fifteen on Saturday. She celebrated all weekend — cupcakes, a movie, a sleepover, out for dinner, an "Adventure Trail Ride" with her beloved horse, presents and then ... more cupcakes. 

My husband and I walked around dazed, muttering to each other and ourselves, "How can she be fifteen?" "When did that happen? " and "We are so-o-o-o old.""

This birthday, more than any other to date, feels like a major milestone. Maybe it's because she just started high school a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe it's because I remember so keenly how it felt to be fifteen. I certainly didn't think of myself as a child.

Growing up in New York City, I had far more autonomy than my daughter does. (And growing up in the 1970s, I had far far fewer electronics.) But, I still experienced a lot of the confusion and wonder and pressure and joy and sorrow that she's feeling right now.

So, for this post, I was trying to think of advice I could give her. Instead, I've turned to some other very smart women.

Happy birthday, sweetie. These are for you:

1. "Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent." 
Eleanor Roosevelt 

2. "Understand that the right to choose your own path is a sacred privilege. Use it." 
Oprah Winfrey 

3. "When you do the best you can, you never know what miracle is wrought in your life or in the life of another."
Helen Keller

4. "If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it."
Erma Bombeck

5. "The most effective way to do it is to do it."
Amelia Earhart

6. "The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish!"
Anne Frank

7. "You grow up the day you have your first real laugh at yourself."
Ethel Barrymore

8. "You can do no great things, only small things with great love."
Mother Teresa

9. "Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get."
Ingrid Bergman

10. "Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion."
Martha Graham

11. "Always go with the choice that scares you the most, because that's the one that is going to require the most from you."
Caroline Myss

12. "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
Maya Angelou

13. "Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."

Ella Fitzgerald

14. "You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try."
Beverly Sills 

15. “About all you can do in life is be who you are.”
Rita Mae Brown

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Nagging Truth

I read a story written by a parenting expert a few days ago. It said that you should make a list of all the things you nag your teen about, and then cull it down to just the most important three. 

Three? How could I possibly choose three?

Let's get a few things straight here. First of all, I am not naturally a "nag." I have what might be called a "can-do" attitude. I see something that needs doing and I do it. I expect other people in my life — my husband, my coworkers, my teenage daughter — to behave the same way. If everyone does what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it, there is no nagging necessary. Right?

Dream on, my friend, dream on.

I'm quite certain that my daughter would find this hard to believe (Hard? Try impossible!), but it gives me no pleasure to nag. I actually resent being put in a nagging situation. Sometimes, I'm surprised by what comes out of my own mouth.

Who is this person, I wonder. When did I become such a ... well ... nag?

Think about the word itself. As a noun, it literally means a decrepit old horse. As a verb, it means to complain incessantly. Incessantly! I'm an incessant complainer. Ugh!

But, despite my aversion to the very concept of myself as nag, reading the story made me stop and think. Do I nag too much? Probably. Should I choose my battles? Probably. Would life be better if I took an enormous chill pill? Probably!!!

If there's anything at which I've always excelled, it's following instructions. Seriously, I was one of those kids who did really, really well on standardized tests. I actually enjoy following rules. (This is just one of the reasons my daughter and I rarely see eye-to-eye.) So, I sat down and made my list. Here is just a small part of it:

• "Make your bed."
• "Pick up your dirty clothes; put them in the hamper."
• "Hang up your coat."
• "Turn off the computer."
• "Did you bring in the permission slip?"
• "Put your phone down."
• "Have you finished your homework yet?"
• "Don't snack anymore, we're having dinner soon."
• "Brush your teeth."
• "Have you written that 'Thank You' note yet?"
• "When will you be home?"
• "Did you return that book?"
• "Call her back now."
• "Turn that music down."
• "When are you going to study for the test?"
• "Clean off your dresser."
• "Bring your shoes upstairs."
• "Bring the empty soda can downstairs."
• "Use your napkin."
• "Don't eat cookie dough out of the container."

In my defense, I do usually add the word "please." Also, in my defense, these actions that I am (incessantly) asking about are not news. It's not like my teenager doesn't know she's supposed to make the bed. And finally, once again in my defense, I am not the only person in this mother-daughter relationship who is nagging.

My daughter is a very accomplished little nag herself.

She may be in Honors English, but she has trouble with some pretty simple words. Like n-o. When I use that word, as in ...

"Can I get a new riding helmet?"

... she seems to think that I've said, "No. But, if you nag me about it (if you incessantly complain about it) long enough, I'll realize that I actually mean Yes."

Then there's the nagging about how terrible, how downright Dickensian, her teenhood is. Nobody else it seems ever has to clean their room or do their homework. Nobody else has rules about computer and phone usage. Nobody else has to let their mother know where they are or when they'll be home.

How do I know all of this? Because of my daughter's nagging, of course.

So, back to my assignment. Which three will it be? I'm reminded of the story of the Fisherman and his Wife who were granted three wishes by a magic fish. I never understood why they didn't ask for more wishes. I guess my nag list would include:

• "Have you done everything in your power to succeed at school?" (See, this covers homework, studying, reading, returning important documents to school.)
• "Have you done everything in your power to make our home nice and comfortable and orderly?" (That's for beds, floors, laundry, dishes.)
• "Have you done everything in your power to stay healthy?" (There's exercise, diet, hygiene.)

Let's hear it for consolidation. But, somehow I don't think that's what the author had in mind.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Well, How Did I Get Here?


There's a line I love in Mrs. Doubtfire, one of those wonderful movies that you can see over and over and still enjoy. Really, it's on basic cable all the time, and I always stop and watch for at least a few minutes. 

Anyway, Robin Williams (in pants as Daniel, not in a dress as Euphegenia) says:

"Ever wish you could freeze frame a moment in your day, and look at it and say 'this is not my life?' "

I've had a lot of those moments lately. I'll be driving somewhere to run an errand or doing yet another load of laundry or editing a client's copy (for like the eighteenth time) and I'll think back on the hopes and aspirations I had years ago. And I wonder ... WTF?

Or, to quote David Byrne this time: "Well, how did I get here?"

My teen daughter just started high school. Agh! Between having a freshman who is about to turn fifteen, starting to go grey, watching my waist thicken, and experiencing new aches and pains at the gym, I'm feeling particularly old. When I get out of bed in the morning, I make those "Ennnnhhhh ..." sounds that Felix Unger used to make in The Odd Couple.

Yes, I'm old. And, I'm also reminiscing a lot. No matter how different my high school was from my daughter's (different towns, different sizes, different male/female ratios), getting her acclimated has triggered some pretty powerful flashbacks.

I loved, loved, loved school. The classes, the teachers, the assignments (really). But, despite my nerdly ways, I was really looking forward to going out into the world and living a grownup life. Here's what I assumed that life would be like ...

• I'd be a famous actress
• I'd write a bestselling novel
• I'd live in a loft 
• That loft would be in a glamorous city
• I'd go to the Oscars every year (and the Emmy's and the Tony's)
• I'd have a miniature dachshund
• I'd have a home in Cap Ferrat

Here is what I certainly didn't assume ...

• I'd give up acting in college
• I'd write a non-fiction, fairly academic marketing book that was never anyone's definition of a bestseller
• I'd live in a 200-year-old crooked house

• In a sleepy little town in New England
• I'd watch the awards shows — on TV — every year but never stay awake until the end
• I do have the germanic dog
• But, I do not have that home on the French Riviera — not yet

When we're young, we just assume that we will live an extraordinary life. Nobody says, "When I grow up, I want to write direct marketing campaigns for business-to-business technology clients." No one wishes, "Gosh, I hope I can someday be the recording secretary of the PTA." No one thinks, "Wow, maybe someday I can spend hours and hours of quality time sitting in traffic." At least I didn't. 

But, here I am.

My daughter has never been interested in the performing arts, despite delivering a showstopping single line in the third grade production of The Patriots. ("The rest of the world watched in wonder. Never before had a colony declared its independence.") But, she has dreams. Competing in elite world-class equestrian events, owning her own stable, meeting Darren Criss. Y'know, realistic goals like that.

I'm a little past my prime and some of my dreams are a little past their "use by" dates. But, I don't discourage my daughter. Her fantasies are not mine (note the total absence of the word "horse" in either my before or after list), but it's important to imagine the possibilities.

I'll add one more quote to end this post. It's from the late Phyllis Diller:

"Aim high, and you won't shoot your foot off."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Backpack

My daughter's high school is almost exactly 1.5 miles away — a half a mile farther than the middle school was. It takes her 25 minutes to walk, which she does each morning, stopping to pick up a BFF along the way. This works out for everyone involved. The teens get some exercise and the moms have a little more free time for something nice and relaxing like reading the paper or taking a yoga class.

In theory, anyway. 

More often than not, I wave good-bye as my daughter leaves the house and run up to my office to meet a deadline or prepare for a conference call. Regardless, it's nice to have the extra time.

Not this week, apparently.

School started the Tuesday after Labor Day, and I agreed to drive her. Then, that Wednesday, it was pouring, so she and her friend got a ride again. Thursday, they walked as planned. But, Friday, I was back in the driver's seat. Although the weather was beautiful and there was plenty of time, my daughter once again needed a lift.

You see, her backpack weighed 26 pounds.

I am not exaggerating. We actually put the thing on a bathroom scale to check. Inside were three loose leaf binders, her lunch, David Copperfield (all 950 pages of him) and two textbooks — Geometry and World Cultures — each the size of a telephone book. And not, btw, a telephone book from my adopted little seaside suburb. We're talking the Manhattan Yellow Pages here! Times two.

I don't get it. Granted, my memory ain't what it used to be. But, I'm pretty sure I had a single loose leaf with dividers back when I was in high school. My notes and assignments for all of my classes were in that one notebook. (The denim ones were particularly cool. One year, I had a blackwatch plaid one and another year I had a high-tech (high-tech for 1978, that is) hot pink vinyl one with pockets and velcro called, "The Organizer.") 

Anyway, it was one teen: one notebook.

Today, my daughter's teachers each want a separate loose leaf. So, in addition to the three she was trying to transport Friday, there were four more in her locker. And, let me tell you, they aren't giving them away. I practically had to take out
a second mortgage to pay for our trip to Staples. Their 2-inch "Better Binder" is $11.49. Plus tax. My daughter swears that they are truly "better" binders.

And at that price ... they'd better be.

As mystified as I am by the notebook situation, I am equally confused about the ten-pound textbooks. These kids eat, breathe, sleep and live online. Isn't there some way that the material can be accessed electronically? First of all, it would mean that content could be updated and there wouldn't be obsolete textbooks in circulation. And, it would be more engaging for the students; the copy could be enhanced with links for further study, video and interactivities.

C'mon folks, let's save some trees. 

And some teenagers' backs.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The War of the Wives

The other morning, I took about a half hour off from work, poured a nice hot cup of decaf (with unsweetened soy milk which, regardless of the faces my husband might make, actually tastes yummy) and watched Michelle Obama's DNC speechDespite my best intentions, I simply couldn't stay up late enough to tune in live the night before. But, if there's one thing I've learned from my teen daughter it's that you can find pretty much anything you need on YouTube. 

All I can say is "Wow."

She was articulate, compelling, intelligent, passionate, informed, patriotic ... all the things you want in the leader of the free world. But, wait a minute.

She's not running for president, people. She's vying for another four years as the president's spouse.

Another also excellent speech was made last week at the RNC. Ann Romney, by nearly all accounts, stole the show in Tampa from her husband. And, unlike the equally artful address made by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, her speech wasn't ruined by a bunch of spoil-sport fact-checkers afterwards.

(Yes, I admit that I believe she and Mitt ate a lot of tuna on an ironing board. Why this helps a millionaire governor's son relate to the middle class is beyond me, but I do believe it.)

Regardless of your party affiliation or the platform you believe in, isn't it interesting that the wives have been pulled out to stump for their husbands this year? With both women rising to the occasion so well, it seems that the election may be a popularity contest with a twist ...

Who would you rather have — playing hostess — in the White House?

Don't get me wrong. I loved, loved, loved Michelle's speech. I also absolutely admired Ann's. But, what bothers me is that these women are not policymakers or elected representatives. They are speaking to the conventions and, let's face it, to the nation, as wives. In a court of law, they wouldn't have to testify against their husbands. But, clearly they can go ahead and praise them till kingdom come.

Both were there to give us insight into our president and his opponent as people. As husbands and fathers. Both may have been there to woo the women's vote. Both were able to subtly weave their respective party platforms into their heartfelt "You can trust me, I'm just a wife and mother" addresses. Regardless of why and how and what they said, both were undeniably successful.

And their impact is enormous. In popularity polls, both wives are now leaving their husbands in the dust.

All in all, I love it that the two convention speeches that were most important, most electrifying and most far-reaching this year were made by women. Right on! 

But, I can't help but look forward to the day (soon I hope, for the sake of my daughter and her peers), when more women will be there in more official roles. And not merely as the eloquent eye-candy on the arms of a future victor and his vanquished.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hello, High School

After what felt like the shortest summer on record, I dropped my daughter off at high school this morning. Well, technically I dropped her off at the community center down the hill from the high school. It may have been raining. She may have been nervous. But, she sure as Shinola wasn't going to be seen getting out of her mom's car. 

C'mon, she's not a kid anymore.

She had many many questions. Were the seniors (who were driving around town honking their horns early this morning) going to pick on the freshmen? Was the Honors English teacher really going to give them a quiz on David Copperfield? Should she have worn shorts instead of jeans? What if she got lost between Bio and Music in a Digital World? What if she didn't know anyone in her classes? What if she didn't have anyone to sit with at lunch? 

What if ... ? What if ... ? What if ... ?

I had just one question. Where did the years go?

We dropped her off at school for the first time twelve years ago. I have a picture of my tiny girl in an adorable "Back to School" dress with a little backpack and patent leather Mary Janes. She was thrilled to start preschool, and I pretty much kept it together. (The one thing that triggered a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes was the sight of a row of little coat hooks with names above them outside her classroom.)

The picture-taking (if not the lump and tears) remains a tradition. I always say, "Wait, I have to take a picture for Grandma," but in reality the photo is as much for me as anyone. This morning's was shot on our back patio next to the tomato plants that are already dwindling away — another sign that summer is over. My daughter looked cool in a "High school? No big deal," kinda way. Jeans, a loose geometric top over a skinny tank, multicolored Converse sneakers. She's wearing a barrette on one side. Our attempt to give her poker straight hair a bit of a wave by braiding it last night was pretty much an epic fail.

Nevertheless, she was there bright and early, gathering some friends and her courage and ready (or "ready or not") for it all to begin.

One thing I have learned is that it is absolutely of no use whatsoever to relate your teen's current trials and tribulations to your own history. (Or, should I say "ancient history?") I try to remember if I was nervous about starting high school myself. But our experiences are not apples-to-apples. 

She's going into a fairly large, suburban, co-ed school. I went to a quite small test school in a big city, which had been single-sex for more than a century. 

She's an active, free spirit who would rather muck out a stall than crack open a textbook. I was a bit of a nerd who preferred classes to practically anything else. Honestly. Family lore often recounts my sorrow when other kids, friends from my mother's midwest home state, got to go back to school two weeks before I did. I would sit on my grandmother's front porch and watch the school bus go by and pout.

There are so many things I hope she'll learn in the next four years. Specific subject matter, of course. How to ace her SATs and get into a great college, certainly. But, more importantly, that cliques matter less than individual people. That you can try new things. That maybe you are good at something that you never even imagined. That you can work toward goals. That you can solve problems, make smart choices sometimes and learn from mistakes others. That if you focus on all of this, your confidence will catch up to your competence, and things like the first day of high school won't be quite so scary anymore.

Were I to explain any of the above to my daughter, she would have even less faith in my ability to relate to her life than she already does.

Which, let me assure you, ain't much. After all, she's in high school now. She's not a kid anymore.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pass the Popcorn: Beasts of the Southern Wild

When I was a kid, my family went to movies together all the time. We stayed mostly on Manhattan's upper westside (which was nowhere near as chic and expensive as it is today). We went to theatres that aren't there anymore: Cinema Studios, the Embassy, the Regency and Loews 83rd. Actually, Loews 83rd is still there but it's now AMC 84th. Huh?

The times they are a'changin'.

Anyway, my husband, teen daughter and I very rarely go to the movies. My husband's not really a movie guy and my daughter is far too busy with her horses and her friends and her horses and her schoolwork and her horses. (Did I mention her horses?) So I was very excited when they both expressed interest in seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild.

A number of people had asked if I'd seen "that New Orleans movie." The movie is not, however, set in NOLA. It takes place in a bayou that time has forgotten, called "the Bathtub." An enormous levee separates the Bathtub from civilization, and when a storm comes (we can assume it's Katrina, but it's never really specified), that levee protects the rest of the world, while the Bathtub disappears under flood waters.

The heroine is a little girl nicknamed Hushpuppy. She lives with her alcoholic daddy, a fat pig and some chickens in a trailer built on stilts. Together, they fish from an ark made out of a derelict pickup truck bed. Life in the Bathtub is harsh but joyous at the same time. They live in such squalor that it's hard to believe the story takes place in this country. And yet, they feast on crabs and crawfish, drink to excess and celebrate their own version of a back country Mardi Gras all the time.

Despite what appears to be a rather spotty education, Hushpuppy is a deep thinker. She is keenly aware of her place in the universe. When she closes her eyes, she can see all of nature and she speaks as an underage conservationist. 

"The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted."

After the flood, Hushpuppy, her father and a ragtag group of survivors band together to try and save the Bathtub. They are "rescued" and brought to a relief station, but they stage an escape and return to the Bathtub. Realizing that her father is very ill, Hushpuppy sets off with a handful of orphaned girls to try and find her mother. Their journey takes them to a paddleboat cathouse where they find mother-love in the arms of prostitutes and holy communion in a supper of fried alligator. After staring down the dreaded aurochs (prehistoric beasts brought back to life because the arctic circle is melting), Hushpuppy brings some of the sacred gator back to her dying father before sending him off to his next life.

If this all sounds rather mythic, it absolutely is. Hushpuppy's story is very much a hero's adventure; she is a tiny little Odysseus, facing obstacles along her way, but determined to get home.

The movie was extraordinary. Every actor, from Dwight Henry as the father to Gina Montana as the teacher to tiny little Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, was just fantastic. In terms of evoking a time and place, you could practically smell and taste the Bathtub as well as see it.

Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild was thought-provoking for us. As a comfortable, well-fed, fully-clothed family, we were struck by how little Hushpuppy had and how little she needed. It was particularly interesting to watch the scenes in the relief station. While doctors tried to address her father's dire condition, someone had cleaned Hushpuppy up, put her in a tidy dress, and combed her hair (no mean feat, be assured). On the one hand, we thought she was better off. On the other hand, we cheered for her when her daddy "busted her out" and they returned to the Bathtub.

As we drove home, stopping for some fried fish and chips along the way. My husband, daughter and I compared notes. I definitely liked Beasts of the Southern Wild more than they did. I think they thought it was a little too weird. I thought it was weird too.

Weird in a most wonderful way.