Friday, February 26, 2016

Judging Books By Their Covers

Acquiring parenting books starts before one even becomes a parent. Like virtually every other expectant mum, I was handed a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting by the smiling Ob-Gyn who confirmed my home pregnancy test. (I then received it from at least three other well-wishers.)

So, I dutifully read the first few chapters. With each new trimester, I learned about and checked off the symptoms I was experiencing. Fatigue? Check. Swollen breasts? Check. Morning sickness? Check, in abundance. But, I waited to read the last couple of chapters until about a month before my due date when the expectant father and I went away for our last-vacation-before-baby. There I was, in my maternity (read, skirted) bathing suit, next to the pool at the elegant, old world Mt. Washington hotel. And, as I read about the actual mechanics of the upcoming so-called blessed event, I realized that this was really happening.

Oh boy.

That isn't actually the word I used. But, I digress.

It's all well and good to be prepared, but there's something to be said for mystery.

Soon enough, we were through it and our little bundle of joy came home with us. What to Expect When You're Expecting was replaced with What to Expect the First Year. For good measure, I also bought Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Guide. It was originally published in 1946 and by the time my now teenager came along, it had been through seven editions, reflecting medical advances and parenting trends, as well as cultural changes. It was straight-forward and common sensical. But, what I liked best about it was the index in the back. Ear infection? Check. Croup? Check. "Coxsackievirus?" OMG, check.

I tried a couple of rather controversial parenting books twice: (a) when we were desperate to get her to sleep through the night and (b) when we were equally desperate to get her potty-trained. I found the whole "let her cry" thing beyond painful but effective. Meanwhile, the shame-her-into-24-hour-toilet-compliance method was so horrific that I not only abandoned it (M&Ms and a Princess Barbie did the trick instead), but I threw it away. No Good Will box for that book! I wouldn't wish it on any other mom.

As my daughter became a tween, I found a couple of helpful titles; I enjoyed Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? and Lions and Tigers and Teens. Then, with love and support from friends and readers, I even went so far as publishing some favorite Lovin' the Alien essays in a book — the perfect gift for mothers of tweens, if I do say so myself in this utterly shameless plug.

Whether I was too busy writing myself, too busy being a mom, or (still) deeply disillusioned from the potty fiasco, I didn't give parenting books much cred as my daughter grew up. But, there are many helpful guides out there. 

The titles alone may make you smile:

Yes, Your Teen is Crazy: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your MindMichael J. Bradley

Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I'm Grounded?: Stop Fighting, Start Talking, and Get To Know Your Teen
Vanessa Van Petten

Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens
Laura S. Kastner

Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter
Lucie Hemmen, PhD

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood
Lisa Damour

And  ...

How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years
Julie Ross, M.A.

Best title ever, Julie. Best. Title. Ever.

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.     

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

More Action, Less Figures

In third grade, I had an H.R. Pufnstuf lunchbox. If I still had it (I don't) and if it were in excellent condition (it wasn't), it would be worth about $250. (You could puff a lot of stuff with that kind of dough. Or pay for 1/200th of my daughter's upcoming freshman tuition.)

Regardless, that's chicken feed compared to vintage, mint-in-the-box action figures. 

My little brother had original Star Trek and Star Wars figures. I remember Kirk and Spock in their gold and blue insignia shirts with articulated joints and limbs, and teeny tiny communicators. I also remember Luke Skywalker, complete with his hovercraft. My brother (who, as an adult now, collects movie and TV memorabilia, as well as guitars) played with all of them; he didn't worry about the future value of these figures.

Notice how I called them "figures" and not "dolls." You see, whether it was Trek or Wars, the market for these toys was boys and boys don't play with dolls.

That was the mid-seventies and thanks to "second wave" feminists, we were all having our gender consciousness raised — slowly. On Marlo Thomas's iconic 1972 album Free To Be ... You and Me, Alan Alda sings the story "William Wants a Doll." The young hero (William, a.k.a. "Bill") endures being taunted as a "sissy" and a "jerk." His father spends a fortune on sports equipment to no avail. But, his wise grandmother finally steps in, reminding everyone that someday Bill will be a father and having a doll now will make him a better dad then.

Incredible how ahead-of-its-time Free To Be ... You and Me was. Even more incredible is how relevant its messages still are. It's 44 years later (omg!) and we're still having debates about whether toys should be segregated into gender-specific (and idiot-proof, I guess) pink and blue aisles.

William wasn't asking for an action figure; he wanted a baby doll. That's where the trouble began. Baby dolls (and fashion dolls) are girl territory. But in fairness, besides all the Barbies (now in four different, slightly more realistic body styles) there are more female action figures available today than there were before. 

Target and DC Comics recently announced a new series of "Super Hero Girls." With characters including Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Batgirl and others, the dolls appear to be teenagers, they're fully clothed and less va-va-va-voomish in figure than usual. This is all good.

Two years ago, two moms raised funds through online crowd-sourcing to start "IAmElemental," dedicated to creatIng "toys for play experiences that allow girls (and boys) to envision themselves as strong, powerful and connected beings at the center of a story of their own making." Their superhero lines have been well-received by children, teachers and therapists, as well as collectors.

And, speaking of collectors, there are also great figures available from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of television's smartest super-feminist series. The "Chosen One" and her "Scooby Gang" come with plastic spikes, cross-bows, holy water, crosses and other vamp-fighting paraphernalia. It's obvious that these "dolls" are more interested in saving the world than going on a date with Ken.

Earlier this week, I was distressed to hear from a client and friend that her young daughter can't find toys depicting Rey, the heroine of the new Star Wars mega-blockbuster, The Force Awakens. I pointed her to a story that my brother (feminist father of a fearless daughter, as well as a collector) had found online. Many of the action figure collections from the movie include secondary, tertiary, and even anonymous characters (like nameless, faceless storm troopers), but not the film's leading lady. It appears that the relative absence of Rey was a conscious marketing decision. The powers that be at Disney (which now owns the entire Star Wars franchise) decided that their market would be boys and boys wouldn't want to play with a girl doll.

(Where have we heard that before?)

Of course, once the uproar began — and they thought about all those lost revenue figures — the same decision-makers scrambled. Supposedly, there will be more Rey merchandise available very soon.

But, it does make you wonder, doesn't it?

I mean, look how far we've come.

Or not. (Where's Marlo Thomas when you need her?)

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.     

Thursday, February 18, 2016

These Are The Good Old Days, Aren't They?

When teenagers stress, it's tempting to pooh-pooh the whole thing. How often have I found myself dismissing a complaint with some condescending parental retort? Answer: a lot.

"Oh, you think you're tired? Try being in my shoes." This is typically followed by a litany of middle-aged woes. (Don't worry, I'll spare you.) Somehow, we assume that because these younger people have a free place to live (not to mention, smartphones and North Face jackets, and in our case, an actual horse), they have no worries.

I've changed my tune lately. As high school draws to a close, I wonder how my daughter and her classmates will look back on it. Will they cherish the hours spent studying for AP tests, filling out the common app, or trying to secure enough community service hours (doing something, let's face it, that they probably don't give a shit about)? 

There seems to be a lot less fun than there should be.

These days, anyone who assumes teenagers have time on their hands and nothing on their minds is just plain wrong. They are under tremendous pressure to take the right classes, get the right grades, apply to the right colleges. And, that 's just academics.

Here are some things teens worry about:

1. Their peers

Mean girls are nothing new (there were mean girls even back in the dark ages, when I went to high school). But, digital media adds a new element and a whole new dimension of meanness. If you were unpopular or bullied back in the 1970s, you could leave it at school. Go home, shut your door, put on Elton John's "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road." These days, your troubles follow you home, compliments of group texts, Instagrams and Tumblr. And, even if you're not a victim of bullying, per se, social media can make you miserable. Remember when you couldn't go to the amusement park because you had to work? Well, apparently all your friends went without you — and they're having a wonderful time.

2. Sex
Like everything else, sex is more complicated than it used to be. There are entirely new concepts around which today's teens have to navigate. Like "sexting," "friends with benefits," "virginity pledges," and every parent's worst nightmare: Tinder. Some kids move too quickly, while others seem paralyzed. (Some parents buy their daughter a horse and with it the knowledge that she's at the stable all day every day with nary a randy teen boy in sight.)

3. Drugs and booze and cigarettes and, and, and ...
Whether they're experimenting themselves or watching their friends, traditional teenage bad behavior causes a lot of stress. In addition to illicit substances, more and more teens are using prescription meds — they're cheap and easy to come by. In fact, too many teens abuse drugs they've been prescribed themselves, for anxiety, depression, ADHD, and sports injuries.
4. School
I talked about it above, but I can't underscore it enough. Today's teens have too much homework. Summers, vacation weeks, it doesn't matter. In our quest to raise the quality of education, we are ignoring the value of down-time. The kids are burned out. This week is February break and since we returned home Sunday, my daughter has been studying AP Bio pretty much non-stop. And, the weekend itself was a college visit, so there was inherent stress there as well. 

Which leads me to ...

5. The future 
At a different, also recent, college visit, an academic dean told us that she encourages freshmen not to declare a major right away. This was refreshing, but met with skepticism by most of the parents assembled. There is tremendous pressure for students to already know their major, their post-graduate plans, their career path. They need to be focused and driven. And countless articles analyzing the R.O.I. (that's return-on-investment) of various institutions really doesn't help. What about going to college and trying something new? Or learning about yourself? Or falling in love? 

It's difficult to measure the R.O.I. of these things. But, they are just as important. And, I can't help wondering, what happens when this generation of ├╝ber-focused, ultra-motivated young people suddenly realizes that their youth was hijacked? And, botox aside, they ain't getting it back. 

I'm reminded of an anecdote that's often attributed to John Lennon. "When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy.' They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life."

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Senior Project: Part 2

My teenage daughter long ago decided to do a Senior Project.  A Senior Project was and is absolutely indispensable to her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. 

And, because she waited until the very last minute (despite knowing the requirements and deadline for months), last week found her hustling to secure her internship.

There is much to say in defense of the eleventh hour. That little rush of adrenaline can actually make us more focused. Not that I have too much experience to draw from. I tend to be more of a planner. In fact, in four years, I only pulled an all-nighter once at college (well, only once because of schoolwork as opposed to partying or working a graveyard shift at my summer job). I had to write my thesis paper for "Aesthetics and Criticism in the Arts." This was years before word-processing, but only days before my graduation. I sat down with a 2-liter bottle of TaB and wrote the entire paper in one night on my portable electric typewriter. Not exactly my shining hour, academically. But, I did earn an "A" and a valuable lesson. 

Procrastination isn 't always bad.

Of course, I never said as much to my own daughter.

She figured it out all on her own.

Anyway, there she was less than a week from the due date for all her materials and she didn't have an internship yet. Even my typically implaccable daughter was starting to worry.

She reached out to two potential sponsor organizations: a state-run animal rescue farm about an hour (several towns and three highways) away, and a therapeutic riding center somewhat closer by.

"What if I don't hear back from them soon enough?" she worried. I resisted my usual jump-in-and-fix-it approach to life (to her life). There were still a few days and I decided to let her solve it herself. Worst case, I rationalized, she could simply continue volunteering at the stable she's worked at for the past six years or so. It wasn't what she wanted, but maybe it would teach her not to wait so long next time.

Not this time.

The animal shelter did get back to her. Even better, they were thrilled by her interest and resume, and very eager to hear more about her "large animal" experience. In fact, they scheduled an interview for the very next day. She went, met with the stable manager and volunteer coordinator. They quickly agreed that the internship was a great idea all around. She left with signed Senior Project paperwork and a confirmed schedule for her six-week assignment.

When she had first set up the meeting, I'd immediately thought about how I could clear my own deck. "I'll go with you," I'd offered, thinking it would be a good time to catch up.

"No, thanks," she'd responded instantaneously. "I think it's better if I go by myself."

Of course it is, I realized then.

And, of course it was. 

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.   

Friday, February 12, 2016

Senior Project, Part 1

We are really in the home stretch now. My daughter's second quarter report card was released yesterday (she managed to keep her grades up despite a growing desire to be done with high school forever — or longer if that's possible). She has one more quarter of regular courses left, then ... Senior Project. 

(With an AP Bio test squeezed in there somewhere.)

You may have noticed that I initial cap'd the words Senior and Project. That's because it is very much a proper noun. Senior Project. Senior Project. SENIOR PROJECT! It's something to aspire to, to revere, to regard with awe. Senior Project is a legend that you hear about when you start as a freshman. It offers fantastically adult promises — like open campus, no classes, and an internship.

The internship must be unpaid, but other than that, the field is fairly open. Some kids volunteer in hospitals or as teachers' aids. Some work in offices or libraries. You could build with habitat for humanity or work in a soup kitchen or community garden. My daughter will no doubt find (yet another) opportunity to work with horses.

For a while there, my daughter and her classmates thought the very existence of Senior Project might be in jeopardy. When she was a sophomore, a new principal came in and made seemingly countless, wide-reaching changes, eliminating many of the squishier bits of how the school had been run and adding rules, regulations, processes and procedures. Senior Project was in his cross-hairs for a while, and the underclassmen held their collective breath. Whether someone made a solid case for it (thank you, someone) or the principal ran out of steam or, perhaps more likely, he realized that the lunchroom is overcrowded and getting most of the seniors out of the building would be blessed cafeteria congestion relief ... who knows? The point is, here we are, Spring 2016. 

And Senior Project is on!

The fact that one is a senior does not automatically guarantee that one may pursue a Senior Project. Mais non, mon ami. One must have a certain GPA, a limited number of absences, a spotless detention record. (Having earned detention is acceptable provided that said detention was actually fulfilled.)

And, even with the above criteria met, Senior Project is not a free-for-all six weeks of hooky. There are conditions and criteria. Each student must spend 40 hours a week (35, if they're still taking an AP class) at an approved internship under the supervision of an approved supervisor. He or she must secure a faculty mentor and check in with them on a regular basis. Participants have to keep a journal and then make a 5 or 10-minute presentation when the entire experience is over.

(After hearing all this at a Senior Project parents' meeting, I asked my daughter if it might not be easier to just stay and finish her courses. She looked at me like I had two heads and came from the planet Zot. It's a look she's quite good at; she's had years of practice.)

The paperwork is due this week. Another thing my daughter is very very good at is procrastination. (Of course, she has competition there. Every mom I know boasts the same of her daughter or son.) So, I have no doubt that all of her forms will be turned in on time. Just barely.

Stay tuned. Coming up next: Senior Project, Part 2 "Getting The Internship."

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.    

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

May The Odds Be Ever In Our Favor

My daughter only applied to four colleges. Among her honor student peers in our upscale little town in hyper-educated greater Boston, this is quite unusual. Some girls (and guys, I assume) have applied to eight or ten or twelve or more. All that paperwork is daunting enough. But, the campus visits?

Oh, my dears!

Libraries and lecture rooms, dorms and dining halls. After a while, how do you tell one from another?

Nevertheless, last Friday night found us, once again, heading to a college. In this case, it was one that we had already visited three times and toured twice. In this case, it's out of state. And, in this case, a blizzard here in Massachusetts meant that our late night flight was even later than expected. We got there after midnight.

No big, right? Except that we had to be on campus at 8:00 the next morning for ...

The 75th Annual Hunger Games.

Not really. It just felt like it.

Picture this. Just like in Suzanne Collins' popular dystopian novels (and J-Law's even more popular dystopian movies), game young men and women from all over Panem arrive to compete against each other. I'm not sure what district my daughter would be from — I can't remember, is there one buried under snow and ice? Regardless, these earnest competitors look simultaneously fierce and frightened. Are they fighting for their very lives? No something even more important ...

A full scholarship.

That's right, a "full ride," the magical mystery prize, the holy grail of straight A's and killer SAT's (neither of which, by the way, can my daughter brag about). Having been accepted in October and awarded a nice merit award already, my daughter had been invited to compete for a full scholarship.

(This, btw, created much stress and great angst in my young student. I tried to impress upon her (as did her dad) that it was a "no lose" situation. If she won, it would be amazing! Absolutely amazing. But, if she didn't win and wanted to go to this particular school, she still could.)

We didn't know much about the contest in advance. My daughter had been sent an article and would be writing an essay about it. There were sessions with deans and faculty from her major, and there were concurrent sessions for parents. But, we didn't know how many seniors (or should I call them "tributes?") had been invited. Or how many awards there might be.

Upon arrival, we quickly realized that the odds were not (to quote Effie Trinket, "ever") in our favor. There were 150 students battling it out for 3 scholarships. "Just do your best," I whispered to my girl as the contenders were led from the campus theatre center to the classrooms where they would write their essays. I settled in to hear about the wonderful world of freshman orientation, community service, junior year abroad and, of course, financial aid.

When the Provost welcomed us, he cleared his throat, picked up the mic, raised an arm above his head and — I was so sure — was about to say "Welcome to the 75th Annual  Hunger Games!" 

But no, he made a soccer analogy instead. At his urging, we all yelled "Gooooooooooooooooooal!", holding the word as long as our lungs allowed. I realized his comparison was better.

Getting that scholarship is a goal — and a fine one — but not life or death. And, as far as I'm concerned, my daughter's already a winner.

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.    

Monday, February 8, 2016

Notes From The Bored Room

Historically, here in our historic town, the concept of a "snow day" has been met with mixed emotions. 

On the one hand ... "No school? SWEET!" 

On the other ... "WTF, we're going to be in school all summer!" 

The way our calendar works, each snow day (or any other cancellation for that matter) must be made up at the end of the scheduled year. Once, when the roof of her antiquated elementary school was buried in snow and they feared it would collapse, my daughter was faced with so many days off that first grade would have to continue into July. In the nick of time, the school board realized that they would have to pay unbudgeted salaries and utilities, and they stopped the insanity on June 30th, to the delight of young and old.

However, like so many (so many!) other things, snow days are a little different when one is in one's senior year of high school. My daughter will graduate the second week of June, come hell or high snow banks, no matter how many extra days the freshmen, sophomores and juniors have to make up. 

This means, of course, that her response to a snow day is one of sheer, abandoned, unequivocal joy. 

This also means, Murphy's Law being what it is, that while we had seemingly countless snow days last winter, we had none this winter. Zip. Zilch. Zippo. 

(And, of course, this finally means that life is "soooo unfair" and the world is out to get her. Because, these days, everything seems to lead to that same conclusion.)

At the end of last week, lo and behold, the phone by our nightstand went off and a lovely recorded message from the district's superintendent informed us that due to the incoming storm (it hadn't actually started yet), there would be ... wait-for-it ... no school!


The same message then came in on my mobile, my husband's mobile, and my office phone. Because that's the way we roll.

When she finally woke up (peacefully, with neither blaring alarm nor bellowing parent), my daughter was thrilled. She settled onto the couch with puppy on lap, cell phone in hand, and computer propped up a couple of cushions away. She ate chocolate chip muffins and watched back-to-back-to-back episodes of Grey's Anatomy.

Then she got bored. 

Being a considerate mother, I made some suggestions. She could read. She could clean her room. She could review the article about which she was supposed to write a scholarship competition essay. She could apply for her Senior Project internship. She could pack for the trip we were about to take.

My ideas were not particularly well-received.

After much moping around, she grudgingly bundled up and took the dog for a walk. Then, although I was fairly certain (and correct it turned out) that our flight would be delayed, I insisted we leave for the airport early.

Thinking about the afternoon, I have to wonder. Should I have stopped everything and had a heart-to-heart with her? Should I have pointed out that maybe school was more interesting than she gave it credit for? Was this yet another teaching moment I somehow missed?

Nah. It was just a snow day.

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.    

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Geniuses, For Real

Someday, when I'm long gone, which of our many adventures together will my daughter look back on most fondly? Family vacations? Theatre excursions? Preschool art projects? Prom dress shopping?

Or, will it be our (seemingly endless) trips to The Apple Store?

Hmmm. I wonder.

Yesterday, I stopped work mid-afternoon, picked her up a couple of blocks from the high school, and drove her to the nearest major mall, about 30 minutes away.

In her defense, she offered to drive there by herself. My concern was that, technically if not technologically, her iPhone 6S is actually mine. As in, it's in my name, paid for by my credit card, as are her phone service and data plan. I worried that if something had to be repaired or replaced, she might not be authorized to make those decisions.

Here's what necessitated our latest pilgrimage to the temple Steve Jobs built:

• My daughter's iPhone won't hold a charge. The battery drains from 100% into the single digits in the course of a morning. Whether she's on it or not. And despite the fact that IT'S ONLY 4 MONTHS OLD!

• The aforementioned iPhone will only take a charge from one particular USB lightning cable — stubbornly NOT RESPONDING when plugged into her laptop or any of myriad other cords we've stashed throughout the house and in every car.

• That same iPhone, when it does deign to charge, GETS STUCK AT 77% regardless of how long it's plugged in.

Okay, I don't pretend (not even for a New York minute) that I'm an Apple Genius. But, with the data we've collected above (in capital letters and otherwise), it would seem to me not illogical, not at all unreasonable or outlandish, or even vaguely crazy to suggest that ... there's something perhaps, just a bit wrong with the battery.

My daughter's diagnosis is stated in LOUDER, more definitive and much more colorful language. For real.

Nevertheless, we did what we're supposed to do. Booked a Genius Bar appointment, dropped everything and drove to the Apple Store. We've had good luck there before. The friendly, knowledgeable, and invariably pierced and tattooed, staff takes good care of us. We've always left satisfied (sometimes poorer, but satisfied). Until yesterday.

Our so-called Genius was attentive and polite. But, he couldn't fix the problem. (OMG!) He did some diagnostics and showed us that the battery was healthy. This ruled out "a hardware problem" and suggested (you guessed it) "a software problem." The next step would be wiping the phone, setting it up again as a new phone, using it for a couple of days, and then restoring all of my daughters' data. The issue could be the software. It could be the restore. We would rule each one out.

To me, this sounded sensible. Inconvenient, but sensible.

To my daughter, it sounded like a FATE WORSE THAN DEATH. How did he expect her to live without her data for 48 hours? What if she could never restore? What if she lost her pictures? Did I know what a pain this all was? Don't I care? Don't they care? It's their problem; why can't they fix it? How dare they call themselves 'Geniuses?' On the way from the mall to the stable, my daughter subjected us to a series of neverending questions that would have made Socrates proud. For real.

Nevertheless, this evening, my daughter will download all her photos, then wipe her phone and set it up anew. With any luck, the issues will disappear and all will be well again. My daughter's faith has been shaken, but I still believe. (And, with college tuition looming, I can't even think about buying another phone right now. For real.)

One last thing. 

If anyone at Apple can figure out how to keep these teenage technical issues from growing into crises of global proportions, I will happily call them Geniuses for life. For real.

If you've enjoyed this post, I invite you to order the book Lovin' the Alien here.