Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Amanda Bynes: Another Starlet Crashes

My daughter is fifteen. Over the past decade and a half, she and I have gone through distinct audio-visual phases together. First, there were Teletubbies (omg — should I assume that's what acid feels like?) and Elmo, then we went through a Disney Princess stage, several seasons of The Saddle Club, and eventually into live action teen movies like Princess Diaries and Freaky Friday

When my daughter liked a particular movie, she liked it. I mean, she really liked it. I can't begin to estimate how many times we watched Amanda Bynes in What A Girl Wants.

I didn't mind. (Or, after the third or fourth dozen time, it's probably more accurate to say, I didn't mind much.) The movie had a lot going for it: gorgeous shots of New York and London (two of my favorite cities); a clever update of Cinderella, complete with a thoroughly evil stepmother and stepsister; and an independent heroine who realizes that she has to be true to herself, prompting her hunky young boyfriend to offer one of my all-time favorite lines of teen advice:

"Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you're born to stand out?"

Hear that, girls?

After all the cartoons and puppets, What A Girl Wants was a particularly welcome pleasure for this particular mamma. Why? Two words: Colin Firth. Yes, the penultimate Mr. Darcy, himself, is the heroine's dad. Actually, I remember explaining to my daughter and a friend that I thought Daphne's father was dreamy. "Eeeeewwww!" they responded in unified dismay. As healthy American tweens, they only had eyes for the aforementioned hunky boyfriend.

And now, like Lindsay Lohan before her, promising young actress Amanda Bynes has made it difficult to watch her earlier work without being distracted — and disturbed — by her current crazies.

Bynes has been a star for more than half her life, starting with Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show when she was just thirteen. By the time she appeared in What A Girl Wants, she was already a familiar face, a household name, and the winner of a coveted (if slimed) Kids' Choice Award. And afterwards, she went on to do a series of similar teen films, including She's The Man (a high school version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), Hairspray, Sydney White and Easy A.

She seemed like a bright young actress with a bright long future. In fact, in any live appearances and interviews from those years, Bynes seems like the anti-starlet. Sober. Smart. Down-to-Earth.

Not so much anymore.

Three years ago, Bynes tweeted that she was retiring. A few months later, she updated and assured fans she was "unretiring." And then she hit a wall — as well as several automobiles, including a police cruiser, while she was DUI. An early and enthusiastic devotee of social media, much of her private drama has played out on Twitter. She publicly asked President Obama for help, she posed for bizarre and lewd selfies, and raged on pop star Rihanna. At this week's court appearance, she wore a cartoonish blonde wig, denied everything, and threatened to sue. 

Throughout, sadly, Amanda Bynes has been her own worst enemy. There's so much pressure to "live out loud." Today's tweens, teens and young adults equate posting with real life. But, putting it all out there is even more pitiful when what's on display is a legitimate breakdown.

I can only hope that Bynes gets it back together. I also hope that Amanda's former fans, like my daughter and her peers, can see all of this as a cautionary tale. 

Don't drink and drive. 
Don't smoke dope. 
And, if you're going down, ask for help ... but not via Twitter.

Friday, May 24, 2013

15 Going On 16

When I was younger, I used to wish that life could be a Broadway musical. Complete with singing and dancing. Happy times would be ... well ... happier. Sad times would still be sad, but they would be poignant, profound, bittersweet and set to music.

I may not have done much with my drama major, but I still get inspiration from the likes of Stephen Sondheim; Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; Lerner and Loewe; and, of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Audible sigh.

In The Sound of Music, young Liesl sings a duet with her crush, delivery boy (soon to be Nazi) Rolf. "16 Going on 17." Later, when the blush wears off that first bloom of love, she gratefully gets advice from new stepmother (former nun) Maria. 

My own teenage daughter is not looking for guidance on matters of the heart quite yet. But, there are other more timely topics that I want to help her with. If only Rodgers and Hammerstein had written that classic song for today's teen ...

You wait, little girl,
Though you think you’re grown.
There’s much that you don’t know now.

Your life little girl,
Has its ups and downs.
But there’s room for you to grow now.

(Teen, aside)
Ugh, here we go now.

You are 15 going on 16.
You think that you’re so cool.
Childhood is gone, iPhone’s always on. 
How do you find time for school?

You are 15 going on 16.
You waste hours on what you’ll wear.
Your idea of fun, is Forever 21.
How can you spend so long on your hair?

Totally unprepared are you
To take your SATs.
College is looming, where are you?
Could you study (please)?

You need someone,
Older and wiser,
Telling you what to do.
I once was 15 going on 16,
I'll be the boss of you.

I am 15 going on 16.
You think that I'm naive.
Truth is I’m ok; it’s covered — yes, way!  
But I can’t make you believe.

I am 15 going on 16. 
Why can’t you let me be?
You just don’t get it. Please stop, don’t sweat it.
I’m on top of it all, you’ll see.

Things aren’t the way they were for you.
The 80s? Really? Please!
Don’t you have something else to do?
Mom, I’m on my knees.

I don’t need someone,
Older or “wiser,”
Telling me what to do.
You are 50 going on 90. 
Mom, you just don’t have …

No, I just don’t have …

Mom, you just don’t have a clue. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Horror of Teens

I saw my first horror movie when I was about my teenage daughter's age. 

I'm not counting Jaws, although it was certainly "horrific." In fact, I was so terrified that I had an irrational fear of showers for many days afterwards. I was somehow convinced that a twenty-foot great white shark would make its way from New York City's (fresh water) reservoir to my high rise apartment building, shimmy up ten flights of pipe and squeeze itself out our shower head in order to dismember and eat me. 

Hey, I said it was "irrational."

The movie I'm talking about is When A Stranger Calls. In it, innocent teen babysitter Carol Kane gets repeated creepy calls: "Have you checked the children?" "Have you checked the children?" "Have you checked the children?" She finally contacts the police and they tell her they'll trace the next one. They do and — OMG! — it's coming from inside the house. Had she actually gone upstairs and checked the children, she would have found them — OMG!!! — hacked to pieces.

This was 1979. At the time, I was earning a rather handsome living as a babysitter myself. Luckily, most of my clients had small, modern apartments without second floors or as many nooks and crannies for psychopaths to hide in. This did not stop one of my close friends (a talented young man who later went off to Hollywood and appeared in such teen classics as Private School for Girls and High School USA) from calling and asking "Have you checked the children?"

Needless to say, I did check them, many many (many many) times. They were fine.

The next psychological thriller I remember is Halloween. A bunch of teenagers are stalked and brutally murdered by a lunatic in a Captain Kirk mask. The tingling piano music, while simple and repetitive, is one of the most terrifying elements of the movie. We hear it again and again as, again and again, the teens awkwardly grope each other and die. There seems to be an underlying conservative message: don't have sex or you'll be next. (Not to worry though, a spunky (and wisely abstinent) teenage Jamie Lee Curtis survives to appear in many Halloween sequels and equally horrifying Activia ads.)

This focus on teenagers was repeated in countless movies afterwards: Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer. Basically, if you're a teenager and you use these films as a guide, you should never ever:

• Explore a haunted house
• Hang out after prom
• Go camping
• Be a counselor at a sleepaway camp
• Take a nap
• Join a sorority
• Watch a videotape
• Celebrate Christmas
• Have sex
• Own a chainsaw
• Visit a cemetery
• Or an attic
• Or a basement

While teenagers are often targeted in these movies, there are a few in which a teen is actually the monster. We'll give Carrie a pass here (after what those girls — and her mother — did to her, you kinda sorta hafta). But, how about Jennifer's Body? In it, the bodacious Megan Fox has been turned into a cannibalistic demon and she decides to go after a particularly tasty target. When her best friend, the mousy Needy Lesnicky, accuses her "You're killing people," Jennifer shrugs and corrects her.

"No. I'm killing boys."

The teen as monster is a theme that many of us parents can relate to. After all, our real lives follow a familiar cinematic formula: the other among us. At times, my own daughter, who is pretty, slim and blonde on the outside certainly behaves as if she is possessed by some dark unearthly being on the inside. Here are just a handful of the movies I could make:

Scream and Scream (Until the Homework Gets Done) 
The Thing that Ate All the Cheezits
Midnight Madness at the Mall
Friend Me on Facebook ... If You Dare
One Text Too Many

And, this past week after more than the usual girlfriend drama, homework, tests and horse shows, I could audition and win a key (if doomed) role in ...

The Teenager Who Ate My Brain.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Centers of the Universe

Yesterday, I spoke at a marketing conference, and while I was there, I ran into an old client, colleague and friend. I won't tell you her name; you'll see why in a moment. This woman has twins — a girl and a boy — who are just slightly younger than my daughter. As we compared notes, our discussion (as do most discussions with other moms of other teens) centered around the inherent and omnipresent drama that is our lives. 

She shared a funny story.

Recently, after a hard day at the office, she told her daughter offhandedly, "Oh, I wish I could retire and just work at Nordstrom's."

The daughter was aghast. "No way! You mean, like, you'd wait on my friends? You can't do that!"

I love the fact that my friend's daughter just assumed that the only reason her mother would daydream about a career change would be to torment her teen. (The same daughter would, no doubt, take it very personally if I were to identify her mom by name.)

If you are not the parent of a teenager, here's a news flash:

Teenagers are the centers of the universe. 

If you have one, you know exactly what I mean.

Yes, the world, the planets, the solar system, the sun itself revolves around them. For example, you plan a special family getaway and it happens to conflict with a concert your teenager wants to go to. Clearly, you have done this to punish her. Never mind that you made the vacation plans months ago. Never mind that the band with which she is besotted just released their dates yesterday. It's all your fault. You are unfair. You hate her. You are ruining her life. Yep.

The elation your teen feels when things go her way knows no bounds. It is matched only by the depths of despair she experiences when her best laid plans don't come to fruition. And, because she is the center of the universe, her complaints are fairly epic in proportion. Since the dawn of time, no one has ever had such an unfair English teacher; has ever felt so left out by a cool crowd; has ever had to juggle homework and babysitting; has ever been forced to put away her iPhone, eat broccoli, or make her bed.

It isn't easy being the center of the universe.

(It isn't easy being the center of the universe's mother.)

Well, here's another news flash. I don't think it's entirely the teen's fault. It's a combination of nurture and nature — neither of which is in their control.

If our teens think they are all that, we probably have to accept a little (or a whole lot) of the blame. Since my daughter was born, she has pretty much been the center of our lives here. For years, we've rearranged our schedules to attend dance recitals, school plays and horse shows. We jump in and help her with homework. We jump in and help her with friend issues. We jump up to take her where she needs to go. (Basically, when she says "jump," we ... you guessed it ... jump.)

And my husband and I are not alone. In our case, we accommodate the demands of her horse riding, lessons, and events. But all of our friends with kids have something that they have chosen to invest in and work around: gymnastics, softball, dance, hockey.

Whether it's measured in time or money or hassle, there is no question who is the center of this household. It's not surprising that she assumes that position is hers in the outside world as well.

Meanwhile, a little research reveals that there is a chemical and physiological reason for teens' "me, myself and I" thinking. In a 2008 study, teens were shown to have significantly more receptors for oxytocin. This leads to increased self-consciousness — teens truly believe that everyone is watching them. Another study, in 2011, demonstrated that teens use a part of their brain that makes decisions based on "what's in it for me." This is hard-wired into all of us. The difference between adults and teens is that we only use that processing center some of the time. Teens? All of the time.

Is this their fault? Probably not. Can it be helped? Probably not. Should we lose any more sleep over it?

Probably not.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Princessification of Another Hero

Right now, my teenage daughter is sitting in our dining room in a pair of skinny jeans and a lacy top from Urban Outfitters. She's studying for a Bio quiz, translating a chapter of Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, and reading book eight of Homer's Odysssey. If she gets it all done, she might stream an episode of "Pretty Little Liars."

There's no getting around it. Our Disney Princess days are over. 

Sometimes I miss my little princess. We watched all the classics together: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella. We went through a Beauty and the Beast phase and a Little Mermaid period. I was pleased when Disney introduced some diversity into their royal lineup with Pocahontas, Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. By then though, my daughter was already outgrowing the house of mouse. 

But, my oh my, we sure did amass some serious syndicated merchandise before it was all over!

My weary brain couldn't possibly account for every Disney Princess that entered our home in some shape or form. There were Disney Princess books, CDs, and DVDs, Disney Princess pajamas, Disney Princess bandaids, Disney Princess dolls, Disney Princess board games, Disney Princess tea sets, Disney Princess art kits, Disney Princess fruit roll-ups, Disney Princess costumes, Disney Princess melamine dishes, Disney Princess hair accessories.

And so on and so on and so on.

Although my daughter is no longer under their magic spell, my little niece is just starting to experience all the Disney Princess enchantment. (She's also wild about Disney Fairies, a new series in which Tinkerbell is joined by a pretty posse of other half-naked nymphs and they all wreak havoc. There's probably a reality show on the horizon.) 

This morning, my brother alerted me to a new development in the Disney Princess drama that — while it's par for the course — saddens me.

Disney, apparently, is inducting the tomboy heroine of Brave into its Princess Hall of Fame. That's all well and good, right? Merida is a rather progressive princess; she isn't mooning over a man. In fact, she's trying to avoid marrying a prince by using her own smarts and skills.

But, her smarts and skills won't be enough for her new gig. So, the fine folks at Disney have given her a princess makeover. They put her on a strict diet (she wasn't exactly chubby to start with), gave her a new flowing do and some cosmetic surgery to boot. Either that or she has a fairly accomplished makeup artist now.

The point is, in her new exalted state, Merida has to adhere to  the same sexy (and sexist) stereotype as all the princesses before her. Whether you are a princess or a pauper, the objective is to look as much like a Barbie doll as you can. What a realistic goal to set for our daughters!

If you think I'm irritated, you should hear Brave's creator and co-director Brenda Chapman. Very close to her material (she modeled Merida after her own tween daughter), Chapman is fuming:

"Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance. When little girls say they like it because it's more sparkly, that's all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy 'come hither' look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It's horrible!"

And Chapman may be the most vocal about this development, but she is not alone. The website amightygirl.com has collected over 125,000 signatures from  moms and other concerned feminists, asking Disney to abandon the newer, shinier princess and go back to the spunky character from the movie.

I just signed and I hope you will too.

So, how did Disney respond? A spokesperson explained with a bit of a non-explanation. "Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world."

Yep, I can see that. She's the same strong and determined Merida, except for the hair and the eyes and the waist and the gown and the accessories. Look, she's traded in her bow and arrow for a really fetching belt.

I guess she looks the same to Disney. But not to me.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Today, It's Their Turn

The most common question I get from Lovin' the Alien readers is:

"What does your daughter think of all this?"

Well, she isn't crazy about it, but she knows that I recognize some subjects are off limits. Way off limits. My goal isn't now and never has been to humiliate her. Or even to pay her back for making my life so ... um ... dramatic.

I'd also welcome her involvement. In fact, for the past two years, I've asked my daughter to write a post or two (or ten), but she has never chosen to. Maybe she will one day.

In the meantime, it's only fair to make this a two-way conversation. So, I'm going to let some other teenagers do the talking. Here's what real teens wish they could say to their parents ...

"Knocking while you open the door to my bedroom kinda defeats the purpose of knocking."

"No offense, but your definition of abnormal is our definition of normal."

"Sometimes I really need to chill. Doing nothing doesn't mean I'm not doing something."

"Of course I know you were a teenager once. But, times have changed."

"Act your age. Not mine."

" 'Have I finished my homework yet?' If you already know the answer, don't ask me the question."

"You don't get it. My online life is my real life."

"I'm not you. Let me be me."

"I wish you understood that I’m a teenager now and not a little baby. I still want you to love me, I just don’t want to be smothered."

"You have no clue."

"The reason I didn't ask is that I knew you'd say 'No' "

"I don't tell you when I get a bad grade because I don’t want to listen to you tell me how I’ve let you down. Y'know, one bad grade is just one bad grade."

"One day, you say 'You're 17, act like a grownup.' The next, you say, 'You can't do that, you're only 17.' Which is it? Make up your mind!"

"I wish you wouldn't talk about me to my friends' moms."

"Maybe I would listen to you if you'd just shut up."

If you're like me, you may recognize a little of yourself in some of these. 

Or all of them.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Abercrombie: No Fat Chicks Need Apply

Oh, Abercrombie. Abercrombie. Abercrombie.

When it comes to building a brand for the teen market, Abercrombie & Fitch has done more than make a name for itself. It's created a larger than life, utterly irresistible, almost mythic personality, luring those young adults away from other stores with saner prices. In fact, good luck to my fellow mothers if they happen to be at the mall in search of something practical — say, a sports bra or new gym shoes — for their offspring.

"Can we just look in Abercrombie? Puh-leeeeeeese?" 

The stores are dimly-lit (the better to keep you from actually examining the merchandise or the price tags) with amplified, throbbing music. It's so loud that you can barely hear yourself think, much less hear your teen's negotiations for just one more pair of distressed skin-tight jeans. It honestly feels like hell (and I don't even believe in hell). This is strategic, no doubt. After a few (a very few) minutes, you are desperate to leave and no longer thinking clearly. 

"Must get out of here. Take my MasterCard." 

Not a brand to leave out any of the senses, Abercrombie has its own distinct smell. They douse the clothes and the fixtures — and probably the staff — with their signature scent. It wafts out the store's shuttered entrance and down the walkways of the mall. And once you've made a purchase, it follows you back to your car. Invariably, I have to drive home from Abercrombie's with the windows open.

Then, there are the practically pornographic shopping bags — featuring studly young bucks, tousled hair, six-pack abs, and their jeans pulled down to there. On more than one occasion, I've thrown away perfectly good Abercrombie bags because, really, I'd be too self-conscious to re-use them. I'd feel like a cougar. 

And finally, to complete the Abercrombie experience, the stores only hire picture-perfect people. The supernaturally breathtaking are given jobs as greeters, welcoming you to this adolescent Shangri-La. The drop-dead gorgeous work the cash registers. And the merely beautiful are relegated to folding and stocking shelves.  

Those with zits or unruly hair (a.k.a. regular teenagers) are not welcome. Neither are fatties. And, not just as employees. Abercrombie doesn't want to sell to them either.

According to Abercrombie CEO, Mike Jeffries, "We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in Abercrombie], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

"That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that."

This is an adult speaking?

So that's why the store doesn't have a size XL. (And, trust me, there ain't nothin' particularly large about their L either.) Their jeans only go up to size 10, although they start at 00. For the record, the average American woman wears a size 14.

It's hard for anyone other than a not-quite-developed teenager to squeeze into Abercrombie jeans. But there are plenty of teens who can't either. Alas, they are forced to forego Abercrombie and shop at American Eagle Outfitters, Aeropostale, H&M or Forever 21. I certainly don't feel sorry for any lost revenue on the part of Abercrombie & Fitch. But, I do think it's a shame that a large number of larger teens have yet another reason to feel self-conscious or somehow less than those who happen to weigh less.

My own teen daughter, always lean and athletic, is getting curvier as she gets older. 

Hello? Women have curves.

In the past few years, my daughter's gone from the coveted 00 to a plain single-digit 0 to a 2 to a 4. Soon, she may actually need a size 6. Sacre bleu! (Time to send her to a fat farm, obviously.) The thing is, a teen girl should be considered more attractive with hips and breasts, not less. Abercrombie is promoting an unrealistic ideal — why should a young woman covet the figure of an emaciated boy?

As much as Mr. Jeffries' comments disturb me (disgust might be a better word), there is a bright side to all of this.

Now, I finally have the perfect reason to boycott Abercrombie.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sweet Fifteen, Where'd You Get Those Shoes?

This weekend, my daughter and I went to our first Quinceañera. We were muy emocionado. Not only are we fond of the guest of honor (whom my daughter has known since second grade), but it gave us a great reason to get all dressed up.

(My husband was also invited but he had to decline because he was attending JazzFest in New Orleans with some buddies. Hmmmm ... a function hall filled with elated, shrieking teenagers or three days of non-stop music and beer. It was a tough decision. Not.)

The hall was beautifully decorated in pinks and lavender with candelabras and potted topiary globes of roses. Past the dance floor, we had a lovely view of the ocean. I found my seat at a table with other parents while my daughter settled in at her appointed younger — most definitely cooler — place.

Soon after we arrived, the DJ introduced our young friend's mother and her court (several BFFs and a handful of young relatives). At last, la quinceañera herself came in. She wore a delicate, sparkling tiara and a long white gown, covered in ruffles. She looked like a princesa. 

She positively shone.

New to these celebrations, I was glad that the DJ narrated some of the traditions that followed. The first, and the one that made the greatest impression on my mind, was the shoe ceremony.

One of the young attendants had carried an elegant satin pillow with glittery heels on it. Very very Cinderella. The quinceañera, who had entered the ballroom in flat slippers, changed into the more grownup shoes with the help of her mom. (This is often done by the girl's father, but in this case, our hostess is a single mother. An amazing single mother.) The shoe ceremony symbolizes the young girl becoming a woman. 

And, as the mother of a teen girl, I found it particularly appropriate.

We've seen sky-high heels on my daughter's classmates for a couple of years now. It started at the bar and bat mitzvahs, when they were still tweens. They would teeter and totter about, and thoughtful hosts would provide sleep socks for everyone to dance in. The shoe height peaked last spring for the eighth grade harbor cruise dinner dance. Leaving middle school, the girls wanted to look mature and sexy. But, ultra high shoes on the high seas just didn't seem like a good idea to me. (Add the ultra high hemlines to the ultra high heels and suffice it to say that very little was left to the imagination.) 

My own daughter is usually found in riding boots, Tom's canvas flats, or Converse sneakers. She also has several pairs of what I would call fashion boots: metallic combat, western ankle, studded leather, fringed suede. She is certainly not hurting for footwear, but none of the above quite fit the bill. Her dress was a rich blue strapless number with a flaired above-the-knee skirt and lots of sequins. 

We had to find something just a little more adult and dressy. Think of it as our own shoe ceremony.

In New York, we enlisted the help of my mother (a consummate shopper who helped me find my wedding shoes many moons ago). At Loehman's, my daughter found a pair of $75 satin sandals with rhinestones. They had a high heel, although they stopped just short of Kardashian. She loved them.

Yes, they were kind of pretty. Yes, she claimed they were comfortable. But, I couldn't justify paying that kind of money (remember, New York has 8.5% sales tax) for a pair that could only be worn for super dressy occasions. Despite much cajoling, followed by much grouchiness when she realized that said cajoling wasn't working, we passed. 

A couple of weeks later, I stopped into DSW and found the same shoes for $59 plus another 30% off. A quick photo and text to make sure they were exactly the same ones, and we were in business. I figured it was meant to be. (I also figured that I had just saved $40. And it was good.)

And so, my daughter wore the strappy, sexy, so-grownup heels to the Quinceañera, necessitating a last-minute post-stable pedicure. "How last-minute?" you may ask. She wore flip flops in the car because her toenails were still wet.

I was rather pleased with my own footwear — in a middle-aged mom way. Under my silky black pants and embroidered jacket, I rocked a pair of Stuart Weitzman boots with a relatively high heel and pointy toe. I'm afraid that my strappy sandal days are over. Sure, I'd like to look elegant and even sexy. But, I'm much more concerned about spraining an ankle or breaking a foot. (Been there. Done that.)

But youth is for the young and so are high heels. So what if the girls practically limped through the buffet line? So what if they towered over the handful of boys at the party? So what if virtually every single girl was barefoot by the time the DJ started playing Gangnam Style? As singer-superstar Gwen Stefani acknowledges, "Sometimes you have to sacrifice your performance for high heels."

Then again, I agree with author Sue Grafton. "If high heels were so wonderful, men would be wearing them."

Friday, May 3, 2013

Were Those The Days (My Friend)?

Are there really, as Jules Verne would have us believe, eight million stories in the naked city? Many say there are only seven original plots. (Actually, Aristotle minimalistically argued that there were only two: tragedy and comedy.) Read The Bible, read Dickens, read Shakespeare. You'll read the same stories over and over ... and over and over. Boy meets girl. The hero's quest. The mistaken identity. 

In essence, there are only a finite number of tales to tell. The important thing is how they're told.

The same holds even more true for songs. If you had to create a short list of song categories, it would be a short, short list. One theme that many musicians return to is what Bruce Springsteen aptly called, "Glory Days."

Glory days, well they'll pass you by
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days.

Back in 1967 or so (!), my younger sister and I sang at an assembly at P.S. 199. For some reason, the song we chose (or a grownup chose for us) was "Those Were the Days, My Friend." Sitting on the edge of the auditorium stage, I'm sure we gave it our all. Still, it must have been a bit comical listening to a 5 year-old and a 3 year-old mourn their halcyon past. 

We'd live the life we choose,
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.

The words mean a bit more when you reach mid-life, don't they?

Whether we can play the guitar or not, we all get sentimental sometimes. I find, as the mother of a teen, that I can't help but remember my own youth. And, even though those days weren't always easy (I still have the overwrought, overwritten diaries to prove it!), they did hold a sense of wonder and promise for the future. Now, some thirty-five years later, I continually conduct mini audits. What happened? Where did all those dreams go?

There's a very real melancholy involved in such reflections. That, and, a whole lot of revisionism. As Paul McCartney sang:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Maybe a slow, gentle amnesia is nature's way of keeping us going. Like the way new mothers quickly forget the pains of labor. (Because who, let's face it, would sign on for baby two otherwise?)

One of my favorite songs about the past is by Queen. Freddie Mercury, who was already in the twilight of his short life, making the beautiful lyrics resonate all the more, told us:

Sometimes I get the feelin'
I was back in the old days — long ago
When we were kids, when we were young.
Things seemed so perfect — you know.
The days were endless, we were crazy, we were young.
The sun was always shinin' — we just lived for fun.
Sometimes it seems like lately — I just don't know —
The rest of my life's been just a show.

Those were the days of our lives.
The bad things in life were so few.

Those days are all gone now, but one thing is true
When I look and I find I still love you.

My talented sister and brother sang this at my wedding. And, if there was a dry eye in the house ... well ... suffice it to say, it wasn't mine. The song continues though with a more heartening message, emphasizing some of the sweetness in the bittersweet:

You can't turn back the clock, you can't turn back the tide.
Ain't that a shame.
I'd like to go back one time on a roller coaster ride,
When life was just a game.
No use in sitting and thinkin' on what you did,
When you can lay back and enjoy it through your kids,
Sometimes it seems like lately — I just don't know
Better sit back and go with the flow.

Indeed, as much as I'm often too busy, too tired, and too anxious to "sit back" or "go with the flow," I am enjoying everything again through my daughter. (All right, maybe not Freshman Honors English. Or Geometry. Or World Cultures. But, most of it, most of the time.) And, I try not to reminisce too much. There is wisdom in the concept of living in the moment. After all, I now know I didn't know how good I had it then. In the near future, I will look back and see just how precious this time is. 

Because, to quote another singer ...

These are the good old days.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Field Guide To Moms

We've all heard about Tiger Mothers. In fact, I see them at every PTO meeting I attend (although, I confess, after three years serving as the PTO secretary, I haven't attended much lately — PTO burnout). These are the moms who arrive on time, sit up straight, take notes, and ask questions pertinent only to their little genius/diva/Olympic champion.

"I have a question," they begin, smiling at the group complicitly as though, surely, we all have the same query. "If my daughter is already taking 5 AP classes, can she still start a third language this year?"

Or, "Why does woodwind ensemble meet at the same time as lacrosse? It's really impossible for my son to give up either, and he has his heart set on winning student body president this year."

Or, "Is it possible for the kids to get extra credit for their summer jobs? My daughter is spending July in Geneva, curing cancer."

In a town like ours, Tiger Mothers are everywhere. They regularly email teachers to protest grades. They challenge school committee members, principals, and the superintendent in forums both public and private. They push their National Honor Society tiger cubs into excessive extracurricular activities to build their resumés. 

(Question: shouldn't you have to actually do something before you have a resumé?)

We also have the so-called Dolphin Mothers. These are the liberally educated PBS types. They wear embroidered jackets from Tibet and chunky jewelry. They drag their offspring to cultural events. While their manner may be more fluid, they still expect extraordinary things from their often ordinary kids.

While Tigers and Dolphins (and Helicopters) may be the most famous, here are some other mothers you may see out in the wilds of upper middle class suburbia:

The Ostrich Mother, who buries her head in the sand. As far as she knows (or wants to know), her teen is doing fine. No school issues, no friend troubles, no eating disorders, no inappropriate use of digital technology. All fine here. Thank you. Nothing to see. Move along.

The Harp Seal Mother, who sacrifices everything for her teen. In nature, the harp seal nurses her newborn 24 hours a day for 12 days. (Yikes!) During this period, the pup gains 60 pounds while the mom loses 84. (I repeat, Yikes!) In humans, this phenomenon can be observed in what teens and their moms are wearing: Uggs and Abercrombie vs. the clearance rack at Marshalls. 

The Octopus Mother, who has her many hands in as many things as possible. She runs the church youth group, coaches softball, tutors reading, organizes fundraisers, volunteers at the local thrift shop. She is generous, dedicated, utterly tireless. You see, if she stays really involved, she won't really have to let go.

The Koala Bear Mother, who carries all the weight. These moms are über supportive. In fact, they want their little joey to succeed so badly that they don't just jump in and help, they happily take over. Teen daughter's too tired to finish her essay on Ayn Rand's Anthem? No problem. The Koala will write it for her, and still find time to mash up a nice meal of eucalyptus leaves.

Most moms I know blend characteristics of all of these types. I've certainly helped with homework (stopping well before all-out ghostwriting, but I can understand the temptation). My daughter does indeed dress better than I do, and she'd be the first to complain about my high expectations and how often I insist we go to plays and museums. And, although I don't completely hide from awkward teenage truths, I have been known to turn the occasional blind eye.

So, which mother am I really? 

You'll have to ask my daughter.