Sunday, February 26, 2006

When I Grow Up...

My youngest niece--of money-growing purse fame--turned six earlier this month, as I've heard her announce loudly to anyone unfortunate enough to mistakenly refer to her as five. Her heartfelt pronouncement, "I'm six!" reminds me of an animated bit that used to run on Sesame Street years ago (and may still for all I know), in which a little boy sits up in bed first thing in the morning and says, "I'm six years old today! I'm six years old today!" and then he leaps out of bed and begins bouncing around his room, singing, "I'm six! I'm six! I'm six years old today!"

Strange--when it's 36 (and then some), the impulse to dance around is considerably diminished.

Don't think, though, that I'm complaining about getting old (or older). I'm not of that mindset--at least not yet. Whenever I feel the urge to be overly sensitive of my age, I remind myself to consider the alternatives. It's get older or die, you know? I'm not sure how much longer that pragmatic approach will work in the face of wrinkles, creases and sags (Wrinkles, creases and sags! Oh my!), but for now, it's holding up.

In other age-related news, my next-to-the-youngest niece, older sister to Little Miss "I'm Six," saw me scribbling away in my trusty spiral notebook the other day. She said, "Do you want to be an author when you grow up?"

Now, if she were a few years older, that remark may've been laced with mockery and sarcasm (as are most comments out of the mouths of those in the early double-digit years of adolescence). After all, duh, I am a grown-up, right? And if I were gonna be anything when I grew up, one would think I might have wanted to get started on it sometime before now. But since my niece is only eight and said it with such sweet sincerity, it got me thinking about how even when we're stuck in the rut of our real lives and we think to ourselves, duh, it's too late for me to be anything different "when I grow up," maybe all those possibilities are still out there and maybe I'm not quite as grown up as I thought.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It's All In My Head, Or Why Not to Post Under the Influence of Cold Medicine

On the one hand, I'd like to whine about my head cold, and regale you all with descriptions of the Day-Glo green stuff clogging my sinuses, but on the other hand, I think it's rather ungrateful of me to complain considering this is the first cold I've had all winter and shoot, we're within spittin' distance of spring now. (Of course, my gratitude is tempered by the knowledge that viruses really know no season and the two times I've had pneumonia in my life were both in August.)

This hasn't been much of a winter in our parts in any case. This past weekend was our first real dip into the single digits, with windchills in the negative double digits. So not only has my nose been running, my boogers have been freezing when I'm outside, which is a universally recognized signal of extreme bodily distress brought on by inhumane temperatures. But again, I'm not complaining because as I said, this winter has been mild.

Though my relief at how mild the winter's been is tempered by my concern that this is just another sign of global warming and we're all really, really, really screwed, which reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon in which two goldfish are standing on their tails on the table beside their fish bowl inside of which the little ceramic castle is aflame. The one goldfish says to the other something like, "Whew! We made it...of course now we're equally screwed."

So now I've solved the problem of not posting, but, um I'm thinking we might all be equally screwed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine's Day Rant*

Is Valentine's Day the most romantic day of the year or a purely commercial holiday, which only suckers fall for?

Being on the one hand a cynic by nature and on the other hand employed in one of the so-called industries that benefit directly from the commercial aspect of the holiday puts me in an odd position in that argument. (Rock(ME)Hard place? Not that bad, but close.) The couple-of-day rush at Valentine's Day pays my salary not just for a couple of days, but for a couple of weeks or more so I don't know where I, or the shop, would be without it, but of course I think it's asinine that so many people (almost all men) spend so much out of what amounts to a Pavlovian response to societal and (in the case of demanding, high maintenance women) interpersonal conditioning. Not only do I think it's asinine, I bitterly resent having to jump through hoops for these suckers who not only fall for the hype, but wait for the day of the hoax-holiday and expect my help in working some miracle in their romantic relationships.

That was my mental landscape last year as I put in 36 hours over the course of three days. I was arranging a dozen roses, which with balloons and delivery charges came to right around $100, when I wondered, really, what emotion would motivate someone to spend $100 frigging dollars on one day. I don't buy it as an expression of love--I think it's fear of the highest magnitude. There are two kinds of guys spending $100 on Valentine's flowers--one is living in fear of his woman (a condition commonly referred to as pussy-whipped, or just plain whipped for the faint-hearted among us) and one is guilt-ridden for his own failures the rest of the year. As with all sweeping generalizations, there are exceptions...I just haven't met any lately.

I don't have much faith in the grand gestures--they are hollow and pointless in unhealthy relationships and wholly unnecessary lily-gilding in good relationships.

I hate, too, the dismal lack of creativity and individuality we see on this holiday. A dozen roses is the grand gesture of grand gestures, widely understood to speak of commitment and depth of emotion. It's so arbitrary and, ultimately, meaningless because it pushes the same buttons, at least theoretically, for every couple everywhere. It's not personal in any way--I just don't get it at all. Clearly, there are a lot of men and women who do get it (women who have tantrums when they don't get it, in fact), but I just don't understand why. How can a cliche move anyone?

That having been said, I'm off to arrange about a million roses.

*With thanks (or blame) to Just Me, whose post in part inspired this rant.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Adventures In Parenting: Communicating (Or Not) With a Teenager

From inside Masked Mom Headquarters, 7:23 a.m., one morning last week:

Son-Two: I didn’t sleep very much last night and I’ve been up since 5:30.

Masked Mom: And what were you ruminating upon all night?*
(Pause during which I’m partially dreading his answer and partially trying not to fall back asleep.)

Son-Two: You don’t really expect me to answer that do you?

Well, um, no, I didn’t actually expect a straight answer, but to not ask seemed rude and even a little neglectful. For Son-Two, this conversation is over, but for Mom the conversation is just the beginning…the beginning of ruminating all afternoon about rules and boundaries and being involved enough to show you care without being so involved that you permanently stunt their emotional growth, thereby guaranteeing your children a lonely, hopeless existence.

With teenagers, communication, if it exists at all, is a tricky and terrifying thing. Respecting their privacy, protecting their safety and encouraging their independence all seem essential and often at odds with one another. Finding the right balance is made all the more challenging by the certainty that the right balance is probably different in each new circumstance, with each individual child.

During my own adolescence, when my mom and I were wrangling, long and loud, over her place in my life, I scribbled something in my journal that has come back to haunt me a thousand times since. I wrote that she was so busy trying to be the kind of mother she’d needed or wished she’d had that she had no idea what kind of mother I needed or wished I had.

I know, I know: I sounded just like the spoiled, adolescent brat I was, but I still think I was on to something—not necessarily about my mother in particular, but about parenting in general. Unless we were blessed with perfect parents or perfect perspective on our parents’ imperfections, we carry disappointments about our own parents’ failings with us into parenthood. We’re determined not to make the same mistakes our parents did.

And, we’re right, we don’t make the same mistakes because we’re too busy making our own gloriously messy mistakes for which our kids will no doubt require significant amounts of expensive therapy later on. Mistakes, maybe, like not running after Son-Two that morning—not chasing him down and quizzing him on what might be bothering him. The teenager I was would’ve responded to that kind of interrogation by closing down—answering in shrugs and grunts if at all—and instinct tells me that would’ve been Son-Two’s reaction as well. But instinct is all tangled up with wondering if I’m just being the kind of mother I wished I’d had at sixteen and not the kind of Mom he needs in this moment.

There is so much uncharted territory—streams and bogs and open fields and wooded hills—between us and our kids and as they grow they make more and more of it all their own. Sometimes we must trespass for their own safety—the rest of the time the rules aren’t so clear. Some days, I think the best we can hope for is not to do any lasting damage and to steer them into careers with excellent mental health coverage, just in case.

*Yes, we really do talk to our kids like that around here--occasionally in a mock British accent or snooty professor voice (think John Houseman in The Paper Chase, if anyone out there besides geeky me remembers John Houseman or The Paper Chase). It's had the unintended but totally cool effect of painlessly building their vocabularies--not that the size of their vocabularies is often obvious since they still rely heavily on slang and four-letter words and four-letter slang words especially when talking with friends.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

We had something dramatic happen in town a few weeks ago--something that directly affected only a few people, but took many more by surprise. The week that followed the news was full of "Well, I heard..." and while I occasionally participated, it made me feel like I needed a shower. Gossip: is it evil, pointless chattering or is it a sincere attempt to make sense of the world and our place in it? Or both, alternately or simultaneously, and depending on the spirit of the participants? In this case, most of the people I spoke with or overheard seemed to really be trying to piece together a puzzle, to make sense of a seemingly senseless event.

This leads to another question that's always been of great interest to me, as a person and especially as a writer: to whom does this story--or any story--belong? I've read a million examples of family members feeling betrayed by a writer's work. Do we have a "right" to tell the stories even if the privacy of those closest to us is invaded? I've read in both Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg's work, among others, about giving ourselves permission to tell the truth as we see it in whatever form it flows out of us--poetry, fiction, memoir--and consequences be damned. Tell the truest, realest story you can and take your comfort in that. Your first loyalty is to the story. Okay, yeah, but you don't have to share an apartment or a Thanksgiving dinner with the story except in the most figurative sense.

Even before the local drama, this subject had been on my mind as I read What Remains by Carole Radziwill. She was married to John Kennedy, Jr.'s cousin, Anthony Radziwill and she had a very close friendship with Carolyn, John's wife. Carole's husband died of cancer three weeks after John and Carolyn were killed in a plane crash.

In September of last year, when the book was released, I caught maybe thirty seconds of an interview on one of the morning news programs. I'm a chronic channel hopper when it comes to those shows--thirty seconds here, a minute there--so I'm not at all sure who was interviewing her, though I'm reasonably sure it was someone male. One of the questions she was asked had to do with how John and Carolyn would've felt about intimate details of their lives being made public. I don't even remember Radziwill's response because I was so busy making a snap judgment--she was taking advantage of her close relationship to John and Carolyn, she was capitalizing on her intimate knowledge to sell books.

Having since read the book--which I never expected to do, but was persuaded by an excerpt of it I stumbled across in a magazine--I can say I was wrong. The interviewer was wrong--unless the rest of the interview somehow redeemed the snippet I caught, somehow revealed the interviewer's depth of understanding of and respect for Carole's book. I doubt it, but hey, I've got to at least put the possibility out there.

The truth about this book, at least, is that the story within it is Carole's: unmistakably, intimately, Carole's personal story. The details she reveals of John and Carolyn's personal lives--and even Anthony's--are just enough to make the reader understand their places in Carole's life--to understand the depth and breadth of her loss, the holes left behind by the disappearance of these three people from her life.

Since it's a question Radziwill has no doubt faced (there's interview transcripts all over the Internet--I was too lazy to read, let alone link to, them all) I have to say that it's likely that if she'd been married to a Schmoe cousin and was close friends with Joe Schmoe and his wife Jane Doe she would never have gotten the book deal she got--especially with a major publisher willing to spring for so much promotional support. But that would've been our loss, you know? And, also, that truth is much more revealing about the nature of publishing and the "book business" than it is of Carole Radziwill's character or talent.

The story in What Remains included John, Carolyn and Anthony, but it was Carole's story and, to a lesser extent, the story of all of us who have faced a loss. There is an elemental way in which the story of one of us is the story of all of us: "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main..."* It is our stories that help us map the landscape of our lives and the world.

*Ms. Tolman, if you're out there, aren't you proud of the way I worked that John Donne quote in there? And aren't you at least a little comforted by my (admittedly half-assed) attribution**? It's almost a footnote. (**Thanks, Nita!)