Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cutting and mustard

My husband stands at the kitchen counter, looking lost. He doesn't know how to cut the sandwich. Diagonal? Perpendicular? Does he like mustard? It's a make or break moment, and he knows it. This is just the kind of thing that can ruin his son's day.

He calls for help.

Can you make his lunch?” he asks me. “He won't blame you if it's wrong.”

I wouldn't be so sure of that. But I take over, and do something completely novel. I ask the Champ what he wants.

I don't like sandwiches any more. I'll just eat the meat,” he informs me.

So I give the bread to the dog and pack the ham and cheese in a bag, add a yogurt, a few oranges and pretzels and stow it in his backpack.

Every day seems to send a different kid my way.

Yesterday at the bus stop he'd wrapped his arms so tightly around my legs that I had to shimmy toward the waiting bus, peel away his hug and hoist him up the steps.

Today he won't let me smooth his hair, or squeeze his shoulders through his thick winter jacket. He would wither and die if I leaned in to kiss him as the bus approaches our stop.

Who knows how many kids could witness such public displays of affection?

I don't mind. I know how it is. I've been right where he's standing now.

The awful, pinching discomfort of love.

Well, not love really. It's not love, in and of itself, that hurts. It's all the incidentals that are added on that takes its toll.

My mom would have understood, too.

I sheepishly asked her once why she didn't chime in when her friends were all singing their children's praises.

I thought maybe she wasn't terribly proud of me.

But she said it wasn't that.

She said she stayed mum because it wasn't what they thought that mattered.

Love is a complicated thing.

On some days, love is having perfectly uniformed pancakes fanned around the plate and spread with just the right amount of butter. No syrup.

Three days later love is raisin bran. No milk.

Sometimes love makes a fuss and sometimes it stays quiet.

It tells you “No” as much as it says “Yes.” It makes you do your homework, feed the dog, clean your room, brush your teeth.

Love also means accepting that underwear goes on backwards, and that the same tiger shirt must be worn day in and day out with and three layers of pants: shorts first, pajamas next and finally, jeans. Love is socks with just the right amount of stretch, and red sneakers with double knotted shoelaces.

Love is knowing that anger, frustration and fear of loss (not to mention selfishness) often come with the territory. And love seems to disconnect as easily as a phone call caught out of range.

But just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there.

My son understands this, too. He also knows the accommodations meter has its limit.

When your mother isn't cutting the mustard, sometimes you just have to cut it yourself.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

You've come a long way, baby … but maybe not as far as you think

I started watching "Mad Men" recently.

I know what you're thinking: It's been six years! What took you so long?

The sets? The costumes? The actors delivering strings of lines that include zingers like: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

Of course, the fact that I remember (albeit briefly) what it was like to be able to smoke in an office makes the sexist, alcohol-fueled workplace of the fictional Sterling Cooper seem as if it were part of my own nostalgia despite the fact that I was an infant at the tail end of the 1960s.

One would think -- given its subject matter and my fascination with publishing and advertising, not to mention my affinity for mid-century Danish modern furniture – that Mad Men would have amounted to must-see television in our household.

Well, in my defense, I did give birth to a baby exactly one month before the show premiered in 2007. Not to mention being so thoroughly engrossed in a competitor's (commercial-free) offerings that I couldn't possibly give AMC another hour of my time.

But truth be told, I would still be watching reruns of The Sopranos if it weren't for my husband, who, on impulse, borrowed the first season of Mad Men from the library a couple of weeks ago.

He brought it home with a sideways glance and the bravado of a man who just filled the freezer with meat he murdered himself. I imagined him asking “Who's the man?” as I briefly considered preemptively high-five-ing him and hollering “You're the man!”

Although … that might have been a bit of an exaggeration on my part.

We start watching the episodes together. He drifted in and out of sleep while I stayed up late into the night watching back-to-back episodes. By the next evening as I change disks and begin the new nightly ritual, I have to fill him in on the plot points he slept through.

As expected, the contrasts are, at times, breathtaking:

When Betty Draper calls for her children to account for their being too quiet at play, she finds her daughter Sally wearing a dry cleaner's bag over her head. Before I can even transfer an image of my own children's labored breathing against a plastic film, Betty is telling Sally that if she finds the clothes that had been in that bag on the floor there will be consequences. The girl skips out of the scene with the bag still over her head.

As the scene ends, I think about the warning imprinted on virtually every plastic bag and how it feels like a revelation.

Yet, the more I delve into the story lines for my slumbering husband, the more I realize I'm having a revelation of an unexpected variety:

It's not how much has changed since the 60s, but how much really hasn't.

Sure, most executives don't slap their secretaries bottoms or drink their lunches, but the fact remains that, in so many fields, the gender of key movers and shakers is overwhelmingly male.

Recently, Toys R Us unveiled its holiday advertising campaigns with a prank-style video wherein a bus load of kids who were expecting to attend an educational, woodsy field trip instead wound up at a toy store, indulging in a pre-holiday spending spree.

The ad strategy tanked with women, according to Forbes magazine, because its comparison – placing education and the outdoors in direct opposition to the consumerism of the holiday – was in direct conflict with their values. Moms, in other words, didn't buy it.

The more I read about the situation, the more I came to realize the reason the ad came off so tone deaf to women – who are the target of such ads – was because a woman probably had nothing to do with creating the campaign.

The ad agency responsible for the piece doesn't have a single woman on its web page titled “leadership.”

Moreover, according to the Forbes article, it seems only three percent of ad agency creative directors are women, a figure that made me wince.

How is it possible that in this day and age women are represented so feebly in an area where their money has so much clout?

Why are women still under-represented in decision-making roles?

Why is there still a wage disparity?

The only answer that comes to mind is that it's not part of our constitution.


This country never made women's equality implicit. The Equal Rights Amendment, while passing both houses in the early 1970s, failed to be ratified by the states and never became a part of our framework.

Until it is, I can't imagine gender discrimination will ever be as rare as a smoke-filled office.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

New car smell

“If I were a dog I would be riding with my head out of the window right now,” the Champ said emphatically … but in disgust.

The offending odor was New Car Smell. More precisely, the stench was New Car Smell Spray Freshener, which, as many of you know, is a detailing chemical specifically formulated for use in pre-owned cars. And it is cloying.

Even I wanted to roll down the windows of the new-to-us micro-van (a miniature version of the mini-van if you can believe such a thing exists) as we took our post-sale, matron voyage home. I'd have called it a maiden voyage, but this is, after all, a Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle and it's already been around the block a few times if you know what I mean.

Not that I am biased against used cars. The pragmatist in me is all for them, not to mention the thousands of dollars they save in sticker shock.

This baby had fewer miles and more bells and whistles than any vehicle we've parked in our driveway during the past decade. What's not to love? It has room for six, leather seats, Bluetooth, a 6-CD changer, fog lights, a digital compass in the rearview mirror and a moonroof. There is even an indicator on the dashboard that, if I had, in fact, rolled down the windows to let out the NEW CAR SMELL, would have told me we might all freeze to death.

Behind the wheel, just sitting there in the car lot -- adjusting the mirrors and programming the radio -- I felt like a kid in a candy shop. The fact that it had an automatic transmission – the thing I despise most in a car – didn't even spoil the sweetness.

And despite the state of the air in our passenger compartment, the kids were excited, too. This is the first “new” car my children have ever been a part of procuring.

At ages nine and six, my kids are a rarity among their peers, whose families have updated their modes of transportation every three to four years on average.

Not that they didn't corner the car-buying learning curve like it was on rails.

Before we even had scheduled our first test drive, the kids were kicking tires and comparing options. At the supermarket parking lot, they'd even stop strangers climbing down from SUVs to ask “How'do yah like that car, mister?”

In fact, my daughter could distinguish a Honda Odyssey from a Mazda 7 from six car lengths away. And my son was well aware of all the kid-friendly luxury add-ons that these dreamboats could have, such as on-board DVD players, dual cup holders and built-in vacuum cleaning systems. They even knew which celebrity starred as the Gummy Bear who got to ride in the much-hyped suction device, in a recent mini-van commercial.

“He was Gallaxhar in 'Monsters vs. Aliens'!”

Listening to them prattle on about the wonders of automatic seats and in-floor storage compartments that will fit ALL THEIR TOYS! I can't help but wonder, and fret, about how they will take the news:

We didn't buy THAT car.

We bought the car we could afford.

The one that had seat warmers (in the front seats only); no built-in entertainment systems other than the 6-CD changer, which may cause WWIII when one of them wants to listen to the radio and the other wants to hear an audio book; and certainly no on-board vacuum cleaner, which they no doubt had decided would be a hilarious toy with which to torment the dog during long trips.

They didn't listen to my warning. They didn't even care.

They only heard: “We bought the car ...”

And they had more pressing things to decide between themselves. … like who was going to get the seat in the “way, way back?”

Sunday, November 03, 2013

A tale of two cities

I'm not sure what I was thinking … taking the kids to New York City for a weekend.

Oh sure, I had envisioned that we'd see some sights, visit friends, do a little shopping. Just your average, basic, run-of-the-mill adventures exploring big cities that are a little more than a hop-skip from home. I thought they'd Love it with a capital L.

And, for the most part, the Big Apple itinerary was pretty straight forward.

We took a train downtown. Checked into a hotel. A nice, clean place with a bathroom that rivaled the size of the bedroom. The kids could jump back and forth between the beds without fear of slipping off. I didn't even worry that they would hurt themselves since there was nowhere to fall but into a mattress. Still, it was the Taj Mahal compared to some of the flea bag places we'd stayed in the days before kids.

We walked. Met friends. Walked some more.

The New York experience was old hat to us, it was all new for our little tourists, each of whom were directed not to bring anything in their backpacks they couldn't carry all day. Under no circumstances, I stressed, would I be lugging around their bags, so they might want to make selections based on weight.

Soon, it was pretty clear New York City was a bit of a culture shock.

The kids were overwhelmed by all the contrasts: The giant buildings housing tiny cubicles. The bright lights and the grit. Everywhere we stepped there was something to be avoided.

Manhattan isn't so much a place as it is a living, breathing entity with an unimaginable array of surprises in its pockets.

It is place where unbelievable wealth rubs up against unimaginable poverty. Where homeless families look remarkably similar to us: A mom dragging a wheeled suitcase through the subway, her kids hefting their best things in their backpacks.

My kids, hefting their own backpacks without complaint, skipped across East 64th Street, happily noting the neatly-kept stoops and doorways of the stately brownstones. This is the New York they understand. The one they've seen in movies. This New York with its cloistered entryways decorated in the muted, tasteful colors of fall. The word “manicured” perfectly fits the condition of the teacup gardens we are able to see as we make our way to our destination. Symmetrical topiaries and ground covers tended in pots flank doorways. Perfectly round pumpkins dot stairs.

This is the New York they appreciate. The land of FAO Schwarz and Central Park, and the Upper West Side.

It occurs to me as we make our way to the zoo and its tidy self-serve ticket booths that most people don't see the allure of New York City until they reach an age where designer handbag knockoffs seem irresistible.

Below Delancey, where we had been staying, the city is steeped in smells of a different place. An atmosphere made from the mixture of old garbage with fresh fruit and fish.

With their shirts stretched up over their noses, they jumped over schools of cigarette filters swimming in oily puddles. They gawk at shopping carts filled to overflowing with deposit bottles and other possessions parked along the sidewalk and locked with heavy bike chains.

A woman is sleeping next to one of the carts. Two dogs awake in her lap stare up at the kids. They don't wag their tails. A young man with a scarf leans down with his camera and takes a picture. His friends laugh.

Ittybit looks sad. She doesn't ask for an explanation.

We keep moving. Past markets and shops. Schools and pocket parks. Anything you can imagine and more than you could ever imagine are here somewhere. Street musicians, pop-up shops where you can get your shoes shined or your clothes mended.

It occurs to me that this is the city I found when I came to visit the first time, a place where small and large are one in the same, and where no space ever goes to waste.

But it isn't the one my kids will remember. Their NYC has real live toy soldiers as doormen, and snow leopards in its parks.