Monday, April 29, 2013

Fixing Things

Okay, I admit it. Sometimes I'm the first in line to complain about teenagers. In fact, for the past two years, I've regularly aired my grievances in this blog. But, I hope my readers (and, more importantly, my daughter) recognize that I do so with humor and affection. Well, usually. Well, sometimes. Well ...

Let's move on.

This post is not about monosyllabic responses, digital addiction, dress codes, or so-called music. What I want to talk about right now is my teenage daughter's generation and how they see right through their parents' and grandparents' bad behavior. How they overcome prejudice that has long been taken for granted. How willing they are to not just ask for change, but to make change happen.

And, how proud I am of them.

When I was growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, interracial families were still fairly few and far between — even in my liberal, artsy Manhattan neighborhood. My classmates from "mixed marriages," dealt with everything from the outright rage of bigots to the awkward question of who should they hang out with. "Am I white? Am I black?" Even in New York, there were still remnants of categorization and language from our country's shameful history of human bondage, with terms like "mulatto" and veiled references to the "one-drop rule."

Even the adults I knew who prided themselves on their own "color blindness" still voiced concern about the rest of society and how it would treat these kids. "I'm not prejudiced myself, but ..." Blah blah blah. Simultaneously self-righteous and self-delusional.

What gets me really excited (and hopeful) about the future is how many of my daughter's friends truly do seem to be color blind. They see diversity where we only saw segregation: on TV, in music, in celebrity marriages. Maybe this blending hasn't trickled down yet to their very town, neighborhood or high school, but it's all around them and ingrained in their teen brains.

This past weekend, a bunch of teenagers in southern Georgia took an important step toward erasing a history of thinly veiled ("separate but equal") prejudice in their community. And, in doing so, they inspired adults from all over the country.

For the first time ever, Wilcox County High School had an integrated prom.

All right, when I heard about this a couple of weeks ago, I had to pinch myself. C'mon, I thought, it's 2013. Segregated proms? You have got to be kidding me! But, no. Since 1971, Wilcox High School has effectively gotten around United States laws that would prevent a public school from discriminating against one or another group of students. How? By not "officially" having a prom at all. Instead, the two dances take place as private events, organized and funded by parents. When interviewed, these well-meaning folks have defended the separate galas with that same kind of "ignore the 2,000 pound elephant in the room" blah blah blah.

"It's not that we have anything against the others. Our kids just prefer different music. Blah blah blah."

"It isn't about racism, just tradition. Blah blah blah."

And, here's an actual quote from a member of the City Council. “This whole issue has been blown out of proportion. Nobody had a problem with having two proms until it got all this publicity.”

In other words, if the media doesn't catch wind of it, it's okay? Shame on you. Really.

So, here's the part of the story that I love. Why did the media find out about this? Because the Wilcox High students (or at least a huge group thereof) decided that two proms was one too many. Here's another part I love, that the kids were so common sensical about the whole thing. They didn't get overly militant about it all. They wanted to change this touted tradition because it's dumb. Because it's their prom. Because that's not who they are.

Can you tell I love this story?

Their Facebook page (of course these millenials would leverage social media to the max) explains, “We live in rural south Georgia, where not too many things change. As a group of adamant high school seniors, we want to make a difference in our community. For the first time in the history of our county, we plan to have an integrated prom.”

They succeeded.

And, very soon (maybe even next year), there won't be segregated proms or an integrated prom. 

It'll just be ... prom.

Monday, April 22, 2013

April 15th in Boston

Last Monday was my birthday. April 15th. From now on, it will also be the anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing.

The date itself already lives in infamy. Of course, here in the U.S., it's Income Tax day, which never seemed so bad when I was a child, but — oy vey — writing those checks now? I'd have to get an awful lot of birthday gifts to make up the difference! 

April 15th is also the day the Titanic sunk. The ill-fated liner actually hit the iceberg at 11:40 pm on the 14th. But it took a few hours for the "unsinkable" ship to sink. More than 1,500 people lost their lives.

Similarly, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by actor assassin John Wilkes Booth late the evening of the 14th. He died early the following morning.

As everyone now knows, two bombs were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last week. Three people died and nearly 200 were wounded, many losing limbs. Thousands of lives will never be the same. So, the terrible baggage associated with April 15th has grown heavier. 

On the afternoon of the 15th last year, we were in Boston's Back Bay. In fact, we were right at the Marathon's finish line, almost exactly at the time when the explosions went off this year. Let me explain. It was a milestone birthday for me (the big 5-0) and it happened to fall on a Sunday. I asked my husband and teenage daughter to forego their typical weekend activities (working on his car and riding her horse, respectively) and spend the day with me in the city. They agreed and did even better, surprising me with the inclusion of my best friend and her husband, all the way from Ohio.

We drove in and parked near the North End. We walked up and over Beacon Hill (it was a glorious spring day), through the Public Gardens, stopped for brunch on Arlington Street and walked down Newbury to Copley Center. The Boston Marathon would be the next day (it's always on Monday, Patriot's Day here in Massachusetts), and the viewing stands and media bridges were already set up. My girlfriend and I jokingly took pictures of our husbands posed mid-stride, dashing over the finish line (and looking surprisingly un-sweaty in their oxford shirts and chinos). I tried to get my daughter to pose as well. She declined.

This year, I was working and learned about the bombs through a text from my husband, who was at his office in Boston. It was just after 3:00.

"Bombs at Marathon!"


"At least 12 serious injuries"

I brought my laptop downstairs and turned on the TV. And, chances are, you know the rest.

Within hours, I had concerned inquiries from friends and family as near as New York and as far as London and Monaco. My friend in New Orleans forwarded a sympathetic message from her young daughter. Newtown had happened on her birthday.  

We've all lost so much. But I prefer to take the advice of the late Mr. Rogers' mother. This quote has been much posted and tweeted recently, for good reason.

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

And, events like the Marathon Bombing put things like that into perspective. How precious life is. How kind and brave and compassionate most people are. How blessed we are to be whole and healthy when others are not. How blessed we are to be able to help those others when we can.

The only thing I lost personally was my birthday. Because this year, a day of joy and creation became a day of terror and destruction.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Don't Wish It Away

My teenage daughter has an iPhone app that automatically counts down days. So, at any given time, she can recite how many days until the end of ninth grade, how many days until the equestrian clinic in Vermont, how many days until the Imagine Dragons concert at the Bank of America Pavilion.

I tell her, "Don't wish it away." 

Between now and all of those important dates, there are things she has to focus on, like final exams, her term paper on Athenian Women, and practicing her dressage tests. But, there are also things that are going to be fun, like a trip out to Amherst to attend a good friend's graduation, cousins visiting from out of state, the first warm days of summer. 

She doesn't really believe me, but the time will fly. She's already three quarters through her first year of high school.

Where, oh where, did the time go? Please, don't wish it away.

I still remember being on maternity leave. Like all newborns, my tiny daughter was beautiful. But, like all newborns, she wasn't very responsive. She ate, she slept, she woke up, she ate, she slept, she woke up. In between, there were diaper changes and sponge baths and walks in the Snugli and short breaks in the lilliputian swing we had set up in the living room. I read to her from day one, and while I'd like to imagine that my doing so contributed to her current love of reading, in reality it was more for my own sanity. I was completely in love, but the days went by s-l-o-w-l-y. 

Truth is, back then, I couldn't wait for her to grow up. At least a little.

Truth is, today, I would deplete my savings and max out my credit cards to get a single one of those days back.

As new parents, my husband and I eagerly awaited all of the firsts: first tooth, first word, first step. Each of those milestones came and went. And, others followed: first year at sleep-away camp, first concert, first time she tried sushi.

The years between her first day of kindergarten and her first day of high school are a blur to me now. And, we have new firsts on the horizon:

First time she drives (next September!)
First time she goes out with a boy
First time she and her friends go to a party and find alcohol (or worse) there
First time she gets accepted (or rejected?) by a college
First time she moves away from home

All of these things — the good, the bad, and the truly terrifying — are looming. And if I thought the last fifteen years flew by, how quickly will we get through the next three?

Maybe I need a countdown app. Then again, I'd rather stop, breathe, really be here while I can, and take my own advice ...

"Don't wish it away."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pretty As A Picture?

In the past week, President Obama has received a lot of unwelcome press. As you've surely heard, at a recent fundraiser, he jokingly introduced California's Kamal Harris as "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."

Was this a compliment? Was it an example of sexist marginalization? Or maybe a bit of both? 

You know what I think?

Who cares. Please. Move along.

If you regularly read Lovin' the Alien, you all know that I am a big old feminist with a capital F. And, I'm thoroughly unashamed to admit it. But, this seems a little silly. Isn't there some real news, people?

Harris is attractive. Period. And, Obama was introducing her at a social event, not urging people to vote for her or approve her nomination. I truly don't believe he was belittling her. He could have said the same thing about a good-looking male colleague. In fact, five years ago, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi called Obama himself "young" and "handsome" (and, "suntanned" too, um ... okay ... that's a different story). 

Clearly, the president desperately needs some gender sensitivity training. Not. I think we're taking political correctness a bit too far. Whether you agree with his healthcare reform or his take on taxing the one percent, President Obama is not a male chauvinist. In fact, the irony here is that Obama has appointed a record number of women judges, with two at the Supreme Court level, including my elementary school classmate Elena Kagan.

Truth is, how people look matters. (To many voters, regardless of his policies, Mitt Romney looked like a president should look — whatever that means. Tall, white, and male, I guess.) By and large, better-looking candidates do better. So do better-looking celebrities and better-looking business executives. Not fair, but not not true.

And what's true for people is especially true for female people.

As the mother of a teenage daughter, I am hyper-vigilant when it comes to girls judged by their beauty rather than their brains. But, it's a losing battle. Try to teach teens that appearances can be at worst deceiving and at best irrelevant, and they will look at you like you have two heads. After all, they're not blind. Whether it's a table of perky cheerleaders in the cafeteria or a class clown whose boyish charm helps him get away with disruptive antics in geometry, there are countless examples in high school. Better-looking gets treated ... well ... better.  

And, unfortunately, teen girls can be their own worst enemies. 

I just read a story in The Washington Post about a current social media phenomenon, called "beauty pageants." (I would say a "new" phenomenon, but that would only prove how completely out of touch I am; it's probably been going on for a while. Like most middle-aged moms, I'm hopelessly behind the times when it comes to what's hot and what's not with my fifteen-year old and her cohorts.) 

Basically, an anonymous "pageant host" sets up the contest and girls post self-portraits ("selfies") using the smartphone app Instagram. Then, any of Instagram's estimated 100 million users can give the girl a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down (comments can be a lot more specific and a whole lot more hateful). Enough negative feedback and the girl is — publicly — disqualified.


Let's consider for a moment how many levels of wrong we have here ...

Who is this anonymous host: a group of beer-buzzed fraternity brothers, a particularly competitive queen bee, or your average everyday pedophile? 

When sexier photos are rewarded with higher rankings, how are other contestants (many of whom are underage) being encouraged to behave?

How do the nasty comments and insults affect the self-esteem of teen and preteen girls, for whom — let's face it — self-esteem is a tricky business to begin with?

And, what are people (100 million of them, remember) doing with the pictures now that they're out there? 

Here's what worries me most, I think. Where do teenage girls find a safe haven anymore? Back in those rose-colored good ole days, you could compartmentalize and protect yourself. Yes, you might be teased at school because you had braces or acne or a few extra pounds, but you could escape it when you got home. Now, our girls are always connected. All media, all the time. And with their mobile phones virtually grafted to their bodies, they can't get away from it. Ever.

We are also raising our teens in a world of unprecedented exhibitionism. They don't think about the repercussions, they just shoot and post. I would never (never never never never) put a picture of myself up on a "Nifty Fifty" beauty pageant, if I could even find such a thing. But, it's second nature to them. It's beyond second nature. Through a combined force of peer pressure and the itchy fingers urgency of mobile media, girls are compelled to participate. "Look at me," they're saying. "Validate me. Tell me I'm beautiful." Too often, the result is just the opposite.

Because, at the end of the day, these girls are looking for love in all the wrong places. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

R.I.P. Mother-Daughter Dresses

My mother once told me that "bad news comes in threes." 

This is certainly not her invention, but rather a common superstition. I don't know why the number three figures so prominently. (The three kings? The father, son and the holy ghost? Goldilocks and the three bears? Or is three just a random number, representing the random universe, over which we have — let's face it — very little control.) Regardless, the law of three remains a folkish given, as common on newscasts as it is at the water cooler.

So, when there are two high-profile celebrity deaths, we all wait for the third. Then, we can relax. Until the next round of three, I suppose.

So, here are three seemingly unrelated but recent demises that are resonating with me today.

Roger Ebert, extraordinary author and cultural commentator, philosopher, lifelong learner, liberal and lover. Always a favorite of mine and an inspiration to me as a writer myself. Rest in peace, Roger.

Margaret Thatcher, a feminist before her time. Thatcher, interestingly enough, was such a conservative that many liberals, for whom she was breaking enormous ground by serving in Parliament first and then as Prime Minister, abhorred her. Interesting contradiction. Incredible trailblazer. Rest in peace, Margaret.

And, now, last, possibly least, but hopefully rounding out our threesome for a little while, Lilly Pulitzer.

I do not now and never have owned a Lilly Pulitzer frock. But, in my adopted seacoast town, they are all the rage, all around me, all the time. At the risk of sounding bourgeois, we are members of a yacht club (and no, we do not have a yacht). At Sunday brunches in the summer, the dining room is full of happy, invariably blond, families. Mothers in cheerful Pulitzer prints and little girls in identical cheerful Pulitzer prints. 

A New Yorker at heart, despite my current address, I tend to wear black, black, and ... well ... black. No pastel florals for me, merci mille fois. The first time we took another couple to our club after my daughter was born, I turned to my friend (an art director and probably the most stylish woman I know, who, BTW, was also in black) and whispered, "The day you see us in those matching dresses is the day you shoot me." She solemnly agreed.

My daughter and I did, for a brief period, have matching pajamas. They were "Nick and Nora," a label made famous in an early episode of Ally McBeal. (Remember that show? "Bygones." The "unisex." The dancing baby.) They were flannel and covered with illustrations of sock monkeys; I have a couple of pictures of us together in them from a weekend in Vermont.

We also had matching embroidered Chinese jackets at one point. We wore them at a big family Christmas party. I paired mine with black silk trousers. My daughter wore velvet leggings over her diaper. And if that doesn't date it, nothing will.

Since then, we have gone our own ways. My style is pretty consistent; I've had the same short haircut for decades and still gravitate toward Asian tops and loads of funky jewelry. My now teenage daughter on the other hand goes in and out of fashion phases at a head-spinning rate. Her major influences are Urban Outfitters, her high school peers, and the gospel according to Seventeen. These days, when she isn't in riding breeches and boots, she tends to be poured into skinny jeans with a loose colorful top and a scarf.

This is precisely what I agreed to her wearing yesterday for a family trip into Boston and a show. I still believe in dressing up for the theatre, but suggesting a skirt would be a big waste of my limited time. I settled for stylish casual, which my trim fifteen year old can certainly pull off. She came downstairs in a crisp blue collared blouse with a contrasting blue pashmina (the ones you get for $10 at a cart in the mall, not $200 at a counter at Saks). "You look great!" my husband and I both told her.

"I don't like the blue with the other blue," she moaned at us.

"But, you look great," we repeated. "Really."

"Arrrrgh!" she exclaimed and raced back upstairs, stripping off the freshly-ironed shirt on her way. I followed, stopping in my closet to grab a couple of options. We were already late.

She ended up with the same top but one of my scarves, a funky woven one that I had bought in a shop across from the Tuileries garden when we went to Paris last summer. I was doubly happy. We were leaving and she looked terrific. Maybe I was triply happy. You see, in choosing one of my accessories, she had unwittingly bestowed a rare teen seal of approval. 

This made me reconsider my earlier aversion.

Lilly Pulitzer was not only the mother of mother-daughter dresses, she was the mother of invention. The socialite began her famous preppy line when she asked her seamstress to create some outfits she could wear while selling produce from her husband's citrus groves. The floral fabric effectively hid the juice stains. And as we all know, the dresses soon took on a very colorful life of their own. “I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy ... fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks ... but it made people happy.” I guess as far as corporate missions are concerned, that's a pretty good one.

So, rest in peace, Lilly. I mean it. 

Because, despite my sniping about those ubiquitous sundresses, there is something really happy about the phrase, "Like mother, like daughter." 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pass the Popcorn: Admission

Last Sunday morning, as per usual (okay, as per always), my teenage daughter went to the stable to ride her horse. (As is my chauffeurial way, I headed to Dunkin' Donuts for a decaf hazelnut coffee and their complimentary WiFi.) When she was finished, we drove to nearby Salem for a nice lunch with her dad. 

From there, we would go to a local cineplex to see a matinee of the new Tina Fey movie, Admission.

We had just sat down when my daughter announced that she had better not go to the movie after all, because she still had homework.

This was news to me.

It boggles my mind that, despite a seemingly endless series of "Have you done your homework?" "Do you need to study?" "Are you sure you don't have anything else due tomorrow?", all of which are met with shrugs and blank stares, my daughter suddenly remembers these things. But, she does. Suddenly. All the time.

So, I sat there staring at my caesar salad with poached salmon and considered my options. First of all, I was more than a little bit pissed. The riding was her thing. The movie was mine. This was supposed to be our nice mother-daughter afternoon together. We would split a large popcorn and sneak in some candy. Yes, I was a little pissed ... and a lot of disappointed.

But, of course, schoolwork has to come first! Isn't that what we're always preaching? Really, what kind of mother would I be if I let — nay, encouraged — my young scholar to neglect her studies for a romantic comedy? And, now that we're in high school (yes, that would be the collective we), every assignment carries an enormous burden. The grade you get on the homework will affect the grade you get in the course that affects the average you get for the year that affects the GPA you get after four years that directly affects the colleges you get into which affects the potential of living happily ever after FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE!!!

How ironic if my daughter lost her chance to go to a Harvard or a Yale because we played hooky to watch a movie about getting into a Princeton. 

Meanwhile, I couldn't timeshift the trip to the movie theatre because I was scheduled to interview Admission's novelist for Women's Voices for Change the next day. So, the only option was to go by myself.

My irritation soon wore off. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than being alone in a movie theatre. In fact, there are benefits. I like to sit in the second or third row, dead center. I'm happiest when the movie screen completely fills my field of vision. When I'm part of a group, I usually have to compromise and sit farther back.

The movie was really enjoyable. Tina Fey, always smart and funny, was ... well, smart and funny. Paul Rudd was immensely likable as her "will they or won't they?" love interest. And Lily Tomlin pretty much stole the show as her louder-than-life feminist mother. The script was clever with just enough twists and turns. I went in a big fan of the book, but there were some major changes to the story that kept me engaged.

Besides the girl-meets-boy and long-lost-child plot lines that are front and center in the trailer (no spoilers here, thank you very much), what really fascinated me was the insider's perspective on college admissions. Oy vey! If the adopted, minority, published author, champion chess player, third-generation legacy, flutist with the 4.9 GPA is only on the wait list, what hope is left for our mere mortal children? It was discouraging to say the least. But also, somehow, liberating. There's no way to compete. As the film encourages more than once ... "What's the secret? Be yourself."

My daughter is very very (very very) good at that!

So, at the end of the day, yes, I was glad that my daughter went home and did her work. And, I was glad I saw Admission. And, guess what?

I got a large popcorn anyway. And, I was glad.

Monday, April 1, 2013


When I was a bookish little girl, I read some wonderful fantasy and sci-fi classics. One of the themes that intrigued me was the concept of time travel. Not so much the idea of visiting some historic event, like the Seneca Falls Convention or a Shakespeare play with Shakespeare in it, but more along the lines of returning to some decision in one's own life and going a different direction.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that any change in course, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, would have a ripple effect and change everything ever after.

With this in mind, I've always been very careful about regrets. Could I have taken my SATs again and gone to a better college? Maybe. If I had gone to a different school, I would almost certainly have had a different job afterwards, would not have met my husband there, and would not have produced my now teenage daughter. So basically, unless I'm willing to wish it all away (and most days, I'm not), I can't wish for anything to have happened to or with or by me except what actually did.

Are you following?

I think our inability to rewrite our lives (or re-right our wrongs) is one of the reasons we put so much pressure on our kids. They come into the world pretty much a clean slate and we can "get it right this time." For example, my daughter to date has no cavities. I have enough for both of us (plus the entire Brady Bunch, but who's counting). Can I help it if I'm on her case to brush her teeth all the time?

I'm fifty years old. That means I've had five decades to mess up, miss opportunities, make bad choices. If only I could export all those lessons learned by hitting some magic button. If only my daughter could avoid my mistakes.

Without actually building a time machine or getting in a DeLorean (or a hot tub) and undoing everything that brought me to this very spot at this very moment, here are a few things I could have done ... shall we say ... differently.

10. Taken more courses in college. I was so certain of what I wanted to study that I didn't try enough new things. Now, I only wish I had time for Comparative Religions, French 4, Russian Lit.

9. Stayed in touch. Finding your first grade friend on Facebook is a wonderful thing, but think of all the years in between! ("Hi, Maria!" BTW.)

8. Traveled all over before I had a mortgage and a business and a husband and a child and a ... and a ... and a ...

7. Said "I love you" to more people, more times.

6. Relaxed and enjoyed my pregnancy (well, not the part when I was throwing up all day every day, but the rest of it).

5. Let go of grudges sooner. Learned to forgive and forget. (Still working on that, but I've come a long way, baby.) 

4. Let go of guilt. (See above.)

3. Invested in Microsoft. Or Apple. (Or anything.) 

2. Realized how lucky I was.

And, the number 1 thing I wish I had done?

1. Flossed!