Thursday, November 5, 2009

Helicopter Parents

I’ll admit it. I am one. I raised three children and I tried to make their lives as happy and trouble-free as I could. Because I’m a good mother and I only wanted the best for them. I didn’t want them to suffer from bullies, mean authority figures, social events they weren't invited to, bad grades they occasionally made, sporting teams they didn’t make, all those traumatic events that characterized so much of my trouble-laden early life.

I just wanted my children to be happy.

And guess what? They’re not. As young adults, they worry about everything. They fret over every little bump in the road of life they encounter. A boss who treats one of them unfairly is a “psychopath.” A boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t return their affection can cause a month-long depression. A job that one performs diligently is suddenly eliminated in a down economy – how fair is that?

The answer, of course, is it’s not fair. Because life isn’t fair. My generation knew that. So why did we raise our children to believe that it is?

My husband recently read an article about administrators who are seeing waves of ill-prepared children entering college, children who’ve never made a bad grade in school, or been cut from a sports team, or had to arrange their own social calendar, much less done their own laundry or kept a check book. Children who’ve been protected from failure all their lives and so have come to expect that life is fair.

When I was a girl, I didn’t get a new bicycle just because everyone else on the street got one. If I made a bad grade in school, my parents didn’t call the teacher and request I be allowed to retake the test because I might not get into the right college. On the few occasions when they attended one of my basketball games, they didn’t call the coach afterwards to see what I could do to get more court time.

I learned that sometimes things work out and sometimes life sucks. I learned that failure means picking yourself up, trying a little harder next time, and going on.

And, hopefully, my children will learn that, too. Eventually. Once I stop hovering.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marie Antoinette is Alive and Living on the Upper East Side

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a “Housewives” junkie. It’s my dirty little secret.

Having made it through “The Real Housewives of Orange County” (trailer trash on silicone) and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” (entertaining but fake), I’m hooked, absolutely hooked, on “The Real Housewives of New York City.”

Is it me, or do the Housewives of NYC remind you of being back in high school? First, there’s Alex and her creepy, secretly-gay boyfriend (husband) trying desperately to break into the popular clique. I wanted to like Alex, I really did. She’s from the Midwest and she’s a graphic designer. But then there was the naked-on-the-beach St. Bart’s episode and all the talk about “au pair girls” and knowing the “right people,” not to mention the conversations with her children involving pretentious smatterings of French. And don’t get me started on poor Francois and Johan, those long-haired, French-speaking little darlings destined for a life of school yard bullying. How do you say please don’t kick my ass in French? Really, what are their parents thinking?

And then there’s Ramona, who likes to describe herself as “ladylike” and “classy”, while wearing a tiny bikini and engaging in martini-fueled horseplay around the pool in front of her humiliated thirteen-year-old daughter. Go mom. Ramona’s one of those people who says whatever she wants without any regard for anyone else’s feelings, and then seems genuinely surprised when it all backfires. She’s the girl in high school who tried to make you feel guilty for getting on the pill, who boasted she’d be a virgin when she married, who swore she wasn’t having sex with her boyfriend and later got pregnant her junior year.

Jill reminds me of the girl who grew up in a trailer on the wrong side of town but despite her humble origins, still manages to snag one of the rich boys. She wears her insecurities on her sleeve, only in Jill’s case it’s a Herve Leger sleeve. It gets a little old hearing her brag about spending $8,000 on a Birkin bag or complaining about losing her housekeeper as if it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her; but then she cries when her daughter leaves for Paris or she mentions that her mother used to hound her about her weight when she was a girl, and I can’t help but feel sorry for her. (Is it just me or is Jill’s mother seriously scary?)

Kelly’s the cheerleader who’s always gotten by on her charm and good looks. But don’t cross her. Behind that pretty facade lies a borderline psychopathic personality. (Think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction). And really, the fake tan has got to go. (Not that I would ever tell her this, of course, not unless she was safely trussed up, Hannibal Lector style.)

And Bethenny? Well she’s my peeps. If she and I had gone to high school together, we’d have been good, good friends (as we say in the South). Bethenny wields sarcasm like a scalpel (“Cher called. She wants her outfit back.”) Despite her new fake boobs, there’s something real about her. I can imagine us smoking cigarettes in the girls’ bathroom, sharing a bottle of tequila out at the lake, or sneaking out of my window on a Friday night. (Not that I ever did those things, Mom. Really.)

And then there’s the Countess. LuAnn. Who I used to admire for her openness, before I realized that the openness was really just another side of self-conceit. If I had to place LuAnn in high school, I’d describe her as the self-absorbed Homecoming Queen. The night she corrected Bethenny for having introduced her to the limo driver as “LuAnn” instead of “Countess de Lesseps” I knew I was going to have a problem with LuAnn. The whole thing was so very Let-Them-Eat-Cake. This is America, and we don’t give a damn about things like titles, LuAnn, so get over yourself. Seriously.

Which brings me back to the whole addictive quality of the show; the fact that I feel I know each of these women intimately and can like or dislike them accordingly. I’m a guilty voyeur. As Bethenny says, while watching from the sidelines of a tension-filled tennis match, “It’s like watching someone skin an animal alive.”

My husband always groans and leaves the room when he sees the show is on. But later, as I’m climbing into bed, he wants to know what happened on tonight’s episode. The hypocrite.

He’s as bad as Ramona.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Indian Princess

As children, my father always told us we had Cherokee ancestry. This wasn’t too hard to believe as my brothers and I had round Charlie Brown heads and, what the neighborhood kids liked to call, “Chinese” eyes. My brother’s nickname was Kato and mine was Suzie Wong.

We weren’t just Indian; we were Indian nobility. We were descended from a Cherokee princess, according to my father. He was a large somber man with a Gaelic temperament, meaning that one moment he would be weeping over a particularly beautiful verse of Yeats, and the next roaring in rage over a bicycle left in the driveway. He was a college professor struggling to earn his Ph. D with a wife and three children in tow, and often seemed to be walking a tightrope between hope and utter despair.

My mother, a sweet Southern girl, ruled him with an iron fist although he was unaware of this, of course, as the fist was clothed in a soft downy glove. Direct confrontation was never my mother’s style. She could soothe and cajole my father out of his moods with a skill I’ve only seen matched by The Horse Whisperer.

In those days my father was on a ten-month teaching assignment, meaning he spent a month teaching at a summer camp for forestry students and the remaining two months of the summer traveling with his family. Our travels, regardless of the mileage involved, were always done in an automobile where my brothers and I, endlessly bored, would devise a series of rough games to keep us occupied. The backseat was divided like Gaul into three parts; as the eldest, I took the section directly behind my father where I could mock him with impunity (and where the belt, should he loosen it and begin to flail over the seat back, could not reach); my middle brother took the middle section with two borders to defend; and my youngest brother, who was prone to car sickness, hugged the far door.

The summer of my twelfth year we took a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. My father had brought along Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for his light summer reading, a horrific account of the massacre of three hundred Sioux men, women, and children by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, and as the vacation wore on he sank deeper and deeper into one of his black moods. We watched anxiously as my mother tried, and failed, to bring him out of it.

“Oh look,” she said, clapping her hands gaily. “A trading post. And they have real arrowheads! Let’s stop, shall we?”

“Three hundred men, women and children,” my father said, eyeing us gloomily in the rearview mirror. “Promised a reservation and then hunted down like dogs. They were our people.”

“I thought we were Cherokee,” I said.

“Three hundred people murdered in cold blood.”

“They have ice cream!” my mother said brightly. “Who wants ice cream?”

Later that night, in the adjoining room, we heard my parents arguing, one of the few times I’ve ever heard my mother raise her voice. As we were leaving the next morning, my father said, “Where’s my book?” He had left it on the nightstand, where sometime during the night, it had mysteriously disappeared.

“Where’s my book?” he repeated, eyeing my mother suspiciously.

She returned his gaze evenly. “Today I thought we’d have a picnic,” she said, smiling. “Won’t that be nice?”

I have no idea if my father ever finished the book. He never spoke of it again and not long after this vacation he stopped telling stories of our Cherokee grandmother, the Indian princess. Even now when I’m at my parents’ house I search for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on the bookshelves, but I never find it. It seems to have disappeared into my family’s past as mysteriously as our Cherokee grandmother.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Scarlett O’Hara

Seriously, y’all.

My daughters, raised on semi-militant feminism, have no idea what it was like growing up in the sixties and seventies. Female role models, at least for Southern girls who came from “good people”, tended to run along the lines of Homecoming Queen, Cheerleader, President of the Home Ec Club, Miss Snellville Beach, or for the truly big dreamers among us, Miss America. My own gentle Southern mother, a former Miss Crisp County, watching once as I, in a fit of sullen adolescent rage beat a long line of boys for the church table tennis championship, remarked in despair, “Can’t you ever let the boys win?”

No, mother, I cannot.

Part of my adolescent angst was due to the fact that I couldn’t find any female role models out there who I thought were remotely like me. I was an outcast, an anomaly. Raised on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Marcia Brady I was taught that girls should be (a) pretty, (b) sweet, (c) self-sacrificing, and (d) smart, but not too smart. Certainly my own mother was a shining example of these virtues (except for the last one, she was smart as a whip but kept it to herself.) I, on the other hand, could not manage any of them. I had a bad temper and a tendency to curse like a mafia don when crossed. I was competitive at sports. I spent very little time in front of my Miss Clairol Lighted Make-up Mirror (a gift from my hopeful mother), preferring a pair of faded jeans and one of my father’s old shirts to the tailored pantsuits that were popular in those days. A voracious reader, I had a tendency to be overbearing and opinionated in a classroom setting. I couldn’t have been more miserable or insecure.

And then a wondrous thing happened. I picked up a copy of Gone with the Wind, and my life changed forever.

A true feminist would perhaps find little in Katie Scarlett to admire but to a girl like me she was a godsend. Yes, she was vain and deceitful and selfish, but those traits made her real. She wasn’t some lace and sugar confection meant to be put up on a pedestal and admired from afar; she was down and dirty and cunning as any male.

When I announced my new-found literary ideal that night at dinner my father, an old-school Southern gentleman who never cursed around my mother and I, looked up from his plate and said, “Scarlett O’Hara! Scarlett O’Hara was a ...bitch!”

My mother looked at my father in shocked dismay and said, “Lamar!”
My two brothers snorted and elbowed each other like a couple of frat boys.
“Melanie Hamilton is the true heroine of that novel,” my father said.
“Melanie Hamilton is an insipid milk-toast,” I replied.
“Leave the table!” my father roared.

I knew then that I was on the right track.

Here are the things I learned from Scarlett O’Hara that I have tried to pass on to my own daughters.

1. If you truly want something, go out and get it.
2. Don’t expect a man to make you happy.
3. Be self-sufficient.
4. Don’t waste your time worrying about what small-minded people think.
5. Don’t fear challenges in life; they build character.
6. Don’t be afraid to show people who you really are.
7. Embrace your true nature; your faults as well as your virtues.
8. Never give up on love.
9. Always be hopeful for the future.

So go ahead, label me. Call me a smartass, tell me I’m foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, poorly-dressed. Call me a bitch.

Frankly, sir, I don’t give a damn.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Literary Life

As a teenager, I used to imagine my future life as a writer. I imagined myself twenty years into the future living in a cottage overlooking the Irish Sea, dressed in a pair of silk pajamas, a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other, churning out novels that brought me international acclaim. I imagined a life of quiet seclusion, my only interruptions the daily mail drop, bags and bags of letters from adoring fans who would be content to worship my literary genius from afar.

Fast-forward thirty years to the hard, cold reality of my life as a writer. (a) I’ve never been to Ireland, (b) my fan mail arrives in the form of occasional emails that I’m always thrilled to get, (c) I spend most days dressed in a pair of baggy sweatpants and a stained t-shirt, and (d) I never write clutching a cigarette and a martini (well, not a cigarette anyway).

Writing is no longer about living a life of quiet seclusion. With the advent of podcasts, web sales rankings, and televised book reviews, it’s all about marketing, baby. Image has become just as important as substance. The cult of Youth and Beauty has finally infiltrated the publishing world.

Take a look at the cover photos of some of the writers on the best-selling lists and you’d swear they just walked off the pages of Vogue. Even the literary writers (although done up in tasteful black and white, of course), manage to look youthfully arrogant and, well, fabulous. My son, a Photoshop Wizard, assures me that, with a little work, he can make me look fabulous too.

And I thought all you had to do to be a best-selling writer was write a good book. Silly me.

Byron had a club foot. I’m pretty sure if he wanted to make it in today’s media-saturated publishing market he’d have to do something about that. My new novel, Beach Trip, is set to launch in May and I’m already feeling the pressure for a makeover. I’m thinking fifty pounds, a jowl lift, and a professional teeth-bleaching at the very least.

Forget ghost-writing; the trend of the future will be for ghost-doppelgangers, younger, more attractive actors to fill in on the media circuit for aging, fabulous-challenged writers.

One of my daughters, who looks exactly like I did twenty (okay, thirty) years ago, would be the perfect fill-in for me. I told her with my talent and her looks we’d hit the best-seller lists in no time, we’d be a shoe-in for Oprah and Good Morning America. She thought the idea demeaning to women (she’s currently taking a feminist literature class and has lost her sense of humor.)

Besides, she’s twenty-one. She looks like a goddess. What does she know?