Monday, May 17, 2010

The Understudy

I felt the question coming like a dog feels the pulse of the earth before a quake. I had tracked Monsignor's comments from, "How quickly they grow," to, "What grade are you in this year, Ann?" and I knew what came next. So did Ann. Exactly one beat before the question came, we exchanged a look that said, on her part: "Don't you dare!" and on mine: "Watch me."

A little rock to his heels, a pat of my hand, and Monsignor, with absolute confidence, asked, "So, Mom, has Ann decided where she'd like to go to college?"

Following an inaudible, "Thank you, God," I dropped my chin, blinked once (very slowly), and lowered my voice to inside-the-confessional volume. "Well, Monsignor, we're not sure that Ann is headed to college at all."

I might as well have said that Ann's plans for the future included selling crack and, if necessary, selling her eggs to support her habit. Growing up in Westchester, California, means that you go to college. Toss in the fact that her father is a philosophy professor and that we've nearly bankrupted ourselves sending her to private schools, and Monsignor couldn't have been more surprised if I'd announced a longing to share his celibate bed.

But priests are used to working with the public, and Monsignor recovered quickly.

"Well, you don't need a college degree to get into heaven." He smiled at Ann; and she, being well brought-up, smiled back and answered, "That's true."

The fall-out would come, I knew, in a minute, after Monsignor made his escape. But for the moment I just inhaled slowly, wrapped my arm around Ann's wooden shoulders, and beamed: "She has so many nice qualities. I just know she'll find something meaningful to do with her life. Not everyone is meant to go to college."

Monsignor quickly threw in something about a girl from our parish who considered the army. She decided against it -- seems she wanted to go to college instead, but it was the only precedent he could lay hold of, and I had to give him credit. "Ann would make an excellent soldier," I responded. But before I could really get going on the topic, Ann had divested herself of my arm and Monsignor had made his get-away.

"Why do you do that? That is sooo rude." Ann hissed. "You know I only said that one time. One time I said I didn't know if I wanted to go to college, and you will not let it die. What is wrong with you?"

"One time" is not exactly true. In reality, Ann proclaims her disdain for college every time a report card is mailed home and she has to confront her grades, which stubbornly insist on reflecting her effort. Her defense -- because what high school girl will admit to poor time-management, abject laziness, and wishful thinking -- is to declare, in an avant-garde kind of way, that she's not at all sure she wants to go to college anyway. So take that, Harvard!

But because she is playing into my game so beautifully, I let it go. The argument continues, of course, for many minutes. She is 17, and no argument is really over until she feels she has won. And I let her, knowing that the real victory, the one I learned about from my own mother, is mine.

"Set the bar low," my mother would advise her friends, "and watch your kids leap over it. Nothing so galls a child, so spurs him on, as being underestimated." And though her friends found her Dr. Spock-ish advice barbaric (it was the 1980s and the psychologists had just discovered self-esteem), my mother was actually right.

"Homework? That's your business," she'd say. "Lord, it's not like I didn't work all day." And, "Listen, a 'C' is a perfectly respectable grade. It's not called 'the gentleman's C' for nothing." So my brother and I realized that if we were to make anything of ourselves, it was up to us. I realized this sooner than my brother and took all honors classes in high school and signed myself up for and found rides to the SAT and later the GRE. My brother learned it later, barely graduating from high school but making up for it by becoming a doctor.

I don't expect Ann to pursue medicine -- she's afraid of needles, for one thing. "Listen," I told her, "not everyone gets vaccinated. A certain number of people take that chance every year and get away with it. Only you can weigh the risk of lockjaw against a three second poke." But I do have a suspicion that, this fall, she'll begin mentioning the SAT and showing tentative interest in the application process.

Of course, I could be wrong. She could be playing me. She is the daughter of a philosopher, after all, and is prematurely familiar with the basic syllogism. While tolerating my antics, I would not be surprised if she were thinking: "Mothers like to manipulate their daughters. I am a daughter. Therefore, my mother likes to manipulate me." But even if it turns out that way, and she decides to become a pet groomer rather than major in Russian literature, I will still contend that we've had a good run and that it was worth the risk. After all: Mothers have unconditional love for their daughters. I am Ann's mother. Therefore, I love her unconditionally.

"The Understudy" appeared first on Inside Catholic.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trouble with a Teenage Padawan

My daughter is a good girl. That’s why it’s such a shame that she has hormones. Ryan, her “boyfriend,” might be a good boy too. I don’t know since he’s not allowed to call our home or really, even, to exist on the planet with my daughter because, you see, he has hormones, too. And, I have reason to believe that he is trying to turn my daughter to the dark side.

We found out that our 14-year-old daughter had a boyfriend the old-fashioned way. We read her journal. Before you tsk tsk me, you should know that she left it in plain view and the first line read: “So. . . I guess I have a boyfriend.” We decided this was an obvious plea for help, and so read on. We found out that Ryan had declared his love and that our daughter thought it a bit much. We discovered that Ryan did not think he could live without Ann and that Ann reasoned if he’d made it the first 15 years without her, he’d surely manage another. And, to our celestial delight, Ann wrote that if Ryan thought he was “getting any” from her, he was a fool and in need of another girlfriend. We learned, in short, that we were excellent parents and that the Force ran strong in our family.

Then Ryan’s mother called. Did I know that they were meeting at the movies, the Promenade, and at school dances? I did not. Did I know that they were talking via Ann's cell phone until after midnight? I did not. Did I know that they had been kissing? Oh god, I did not! Did I consider myself a good mother? I did not.

But I was also not easily defeated. She may have the verbal agility of a teenager, I thought, but I am a mother — and it is time for Ann to hear me roar.

“You will not see him unsupervised!” I bellowed. “Supervision is defined as parents being within ten feet of you and your beloved.” I cautioned. “You will hand your cell phone over at 4 P.M. every day,” I commissioned. And then I patted myself on the back, joked with my husband that we were now in the driver’s seat, and went to bed.

Only to be awakened by the ring of our land line. It was Louise, Ryan’s mother, wanting to know why I had suddenly decided it was okay for the twosome to meet at the movies. And, by the way, even if Ann didn’t need to study, Ryan did, and the 10 P.M. phone calls had to stop.

Apparently I had only meowed. Did I even know how to roar? I, who could use my Jedi mind tricks to stop a two-year-old tantrum in its tracks, or turn a distracted fifth grader suddenly studious. Maybe the Force didn’t run strong within me. I’d battled four year old clones and two year old droids and always won, but this apprentice, this was something new. If Ann was going to battle me with the ferocity of a Darth Maul, I’d need a better plan.

And then it hit me. I had to disarm her. I had to get her light saber — and destroy it.

In typical Jedi fashion, Ann kept her glowing pink weapon at her side. If I asked her for it, she wouldn’t defy me. As much as it pained her, she had to recognize herself as still part Padawan learner. And so, last Tuesday, at 3:00, when I expected her home from her all girls’ Catholic high school (don’t tell me I’m not trying!) I waited, sedately, on the porch for her arrival.

Looking darling in her khaki skirt, white knee highs, maroon sweater, and classic loafers, Ann climbed the front stairs and flashed me a smile that told me her world was running way too smoothly.

With steady eyes and a controlled voice, I commanded, “hand me your cell phone.” The pink razor was obediently pressed into my palm, upon which I opened it and saw, for the last time, the glow of the miniature screen, before I broke it in two and threw it away.

Last night I got up at 1:30 in the morning to use the restroom and grab a chocolate covered pretzel to munch on my way back to bed. Ann was nowhere to be seen, but the kitchen light was on, the computer was glowing, and there, on the screen, was Ann’s latest communication:

Ryan: “Your mom sucks. What a *#!*!.”

Ann: “Whatever. See you tomorrow.”

This article first appeared at National Review Online.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Avatar and me

I look like one of the blue people from Avatar. I don't know the name of the blue people because I didn't see the movie. Any movie that gives people strokes is a movie I avoid. Being a hypochondriac is one of my defining characteristics, and I try to aggravate it as little as possible. Ironically, it is also what has me thinking of Avatar. Last Friday I developed a blemish on my forehead--right between my eyes. Since about sixth grade the experts have been telling me to leave blemishes alone, and I have been disobeying them. So, now that I poked and pressed the skin between my eyebrows for three days, it has finally retaliated in earnest by swelling up to make me look like one of the people from Avatar--in other words, a cat. It is so swollen and painful, in fact, that I am now convinced that the bacteria is seeping into my brain and will soon cause a brain stem infection from which there is no cure. And I will die.

I should have just seen the movie.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Of pickles and Filipinos

First up is Frances, not because I’m going in inverse age order, but because she truly earned the position.
On our way home from Seattle last summer we stopped at a Subway to have lunch. The kids took their seats and I ordered. After delivering a sandwich to each child, I sat down to eat my own, only to have Ann rush toward me a moment later. “Mom,” she panted, “Make her shut up!” Alarmed, I looked over at Frances who sat bolt upright and was staring down at her opened sandwich. From across the restaurant I could hear her four year old voice asking: “Are there any Filipinos in my sandwich?” “I can’t stand Filipinos!” This followed by: “Annie, come take the Filipinos out of my sandwich.” By the time I got there Fran was pinching a slice of something green between her thumb and index finger and demanding to know if it was a Filipino. "Good God, No!" I told her. "That's a pickle. Your friend Gigi is Filipino and neither one is spicy."
I told you she deserved first place.
Second place goes to me. While talking with a friend, I misunderstood her niece’s “birth defect” to be a “birthday fete.” So impressed was I by my friend’s use of the quaint term and by my own quick intellect, that it was only when my friend started hobbling around my living room, Quasimodo style, that I understood her meaning. By then, it seemed in poor taste to laugh. I couldn’t help it.
Rob earned third place this year with a joke that still has me laughing. Every five years our parish compiles a directory. Families sign up to have their photo taken and are offered the opportunity to purchase additional photos if they desire. We do not, as a whole, photograph well. This year was no exception. Ed looks to be in pain, Henry’s eyes are everywhere, (in some shots they appear to be looking in opposite directions), and my face is doing something that I simply cannot reconcile with reality. That said, we were not even tempted to purchase additional pictures. In fact, getting us to choose our complimentary photo was hard enough. “Good Lord, not that one!” I shrieked when Rob pointed to one of the entire family. And then, “Look at them! Just look at them!” I admonished when Chris offered a pose of only the kids. In the end, we chose a decent shot of just the two of us. This seemed to stun our saleslady who kept repeating “Are you sure you don’t want a nice family photo?” Rob and I laughed out loud as we confirmed that we’d take “just the one of us, thanks.” At home with the photo, we continued to laugh. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” we joked, “If we used this as our Christmas picture?” “My word, what would people think?” we giggled. “I know,” Chris said, “what if we sent this picture with a letter containing absolutely no mention of the kids? Not a word about them! What would people think?”
But that was just the problem. What would people think? In the end, I lacked the courage to find out. What if you didn’t think it was funny? What if you didn’t get it? What if it was the kind of joke that’s only funny in theory? Rob was the braver of us, willing to risk the polite silence. I had to give him third place for that.
Our third grader, Gill, earns fourth place this year. He took an elementary school version of the SAT with his right hand filling in bubbles while his left hand supported a head whose eyes scanned the playground just outside the window. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” His teacher revealed to me. “I told him that the test mattered—that people would make judgments about his intelligence based on this test. He just looked at me and said: ‘yeah, probably.’ and kept right on staring out the window.” In order to confirm what she’d seen, Gill’s teacher had the principal look up his scores from last year. “Either Gill needs to be in special ed. immediately,” Mrs. Connolly reported, “or he took the same approach last year. He’s in the 1st. percentile nationwide.” That’s my boy.
Fifth place involves a real SAT story. Last October Ann walked into an SAT testing center confident that she could achieve the minimum score for which she was aiming. Three weeks later, with the results in her hand, she was wiser and a whole lot angrier. “Why have you been telling me that I’m smart all these years?” she screamed at me from her bedroom, “because I’m obviously not! I’m obviously an idiot, and I don’t appreciate your lying to me!” As tempting as it was to shout back: “I said you have great potential you lazy brat.” I kept my mouth shut, figuring that the SAT board had just said it for me.
Sixth: Ed is a constant reminder that we live in Southern California. He has taken to wearing a sort of slipper to school. It closely resembles something Hugh Heffner wears. In our warm climate he can wear these slippers year round—and he does. Last Saturday, he even mowed the lawn in them. So far I’m ascribing his footwear choice to adolescence and the weather. If he starts wearing a smoking jacket, however, I may need to consider more sinister influences.
Seven year old Henry takes seventh place with his thoughtful comments and easy smile. “Sometimes I’m desperate to know the future, Mom.” He told me, while clinging to my waist. When he asked if I, too, was desperate to know the future, I told him, “No, not really,” and then stroked and kissed his soft head—something the “future,” I’m sure, won’t allow.
Eighth place is a good slot for Victoria as she’s in the eighth grade. As with most people, the older Victoria gets, the more self-aware she becomes. “I don’t really care for X,” she confided in me the other day. “She never laughs at my jokes.” After a thoughtful pause she continued, “I know that not all of my jokes are funny, but I want friends who work with me, you know?” I do know, my dear, I do know.
And with Grace in ninth place, we come full circle. Last week I noticed that Grace’s cheeks were discolored. They weren’t exactly flushed, but darker, somehow, than the rest of her face. “She’s been dancing,” I said to myself and quite deliberately put it out of my mind. Yesterday Rob noticed. “Come here,” he said to Kate, and upon closer look, called to me. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked. Inside the folds of my brain, I screamed: “Nothing! Not a thing! How dare you notice what I’ve been willing out of existence?” To Rob I numbly replied: “Fifth’s disease, I think.” (Symptoms include: low grade fever, rosy cheeks.) Catherine stood before us, mute, and then retired to the bathroom to have a look for herself. “I think,” she yelled over the roar of the faucet, “it’s the stuff Victoria put on my face to make me look tanner.” All I need now is for George to walk through the door with a fake arrow through his head.
And finally. . .we bought a house! It’s a five bedroom with a great kitchen. For what we paid, we could have bought four in Nebraska, but then Ed couldn’t wear slippers year round, and we couldn’t walk to the ocean.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Our Very Own Smart House

My husband and I were a little late to the home-buying party. Specifically, we were both forty when we could finally, kind of, sort of, if we stopped feeding the kids, afford to buy a house. And so we did. We took everything we had, quite of bit of what other people had, a lot of what the government promised, and we bought a house. I wish we hadn't. The list of things I'm not allowed to buy anymore is overwhelming in its detail and its scope. It starts with clothes, and haircuts, and ends in the emergency room. I do have enough premium denim to last me a good solid year and with spring on the way I can count on mother nature to help me in the highlights department. I'm not looking for sympathy on those accounts. This weekend I cut fourteen year old Victoria's hair (she only cried for a few hours), and I now buzz the boys myself.

But it gets worse. "No more fast food," my husband informed me. "Even when I'm running kids between two/three/four different athletic events?" I whined. "Nope," he said, "plan ahead." Damn. Okay, fast food is bad for the kids anyway and if I can't slap together a few PB and J sandwiches at this point in my career, I can't really call myself a mother. Fine. I'll live.

Now I realize reader, that if you've stayed with me this far, you're beginning to be disgusted. "This woman is a baby," you're thinking. "Fast food and premium demin?" you're muttering to yourself. "There are some folks in Haiti I'd like to introduce her to." Yes, yes, I know. I myself am somewhat embarrassed. But two things, reader, two things. First, it gets worse. Stay with me. Second, and you're not going to like this, but I challenge you to give your spending a once over and see how you rate. Alright, I'm not going to push. I'm just saying. . . People spend thousands on quack nutritionists and I don't see anyone attacking them. Apparently, paying some weirdo to diagnose imaginary digestive problems is fine, but wanting to look your best in the latest fashions is hedonistic.

Anyway, when we still couldn't make ends meet with the peanut butter and jelly, my husband informed me, by way of turing off my reading light, that we'd be giving up electricity. "What?" I bellowed. "We already gave up television." We literally threw it away. "I am the only mother ANYWHERE in America who doesn't own a cell phone, and now I have to give up reading!" "Just for a year or so." He said, "until my income increases." "Well. . . shit." I said to the dark form next to me. "And don't even think about asking me for sex."

In the morning, by way of natural light, I resumed my reading. Now, it's like living in Bill Gate's opposite world. I read somewhere that his house is so smart that as his lovely wife, Melinda, moves from room to room, her music, lighting, and television move from room to room with her. Not only is my house not as smart as Bill Gates', neither is my husband. First, he doesn't wait until I leave a room to turn off the light, preferring, instead, to flip the switch in anticipation of my leaving the room at some theoretical time in the future. "I'm tying my shoes!" I scream from behind the wardrobe, only to hear back, "Wear slip-ons." But last night we reached an apex, and I think I made my point. As I was cautiously feeling my way down a pitch-black hallway, I stumbled over a folded mat and went ass over tea-kettle, landing, as it were, on my tea-kettle. "Mother of God!" I screamed, "This has to stop." Rob and the kids, all seven of them, felt their way through their various dark rooms until they found me in the hallway, swearing and rubbing my head. Risking foreclosure, Rob turned on the light and helped me up. "The idea," he said, "is that you turn on the light when you enter a room, and turn it off when you leave." "The math is really very simple," he continued.
"Yes, it is." I said. "Even a straight-forward divorce is expensive, but one complicated by negligent injury claims could cost you the house." And then, of course, because he's such a good man, and takes such good care of our family, I apologized, turned off the light and lightly kissed him while the kids all yelled "EEEwwwww."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Birthday Already

There should be a rule, celestial or otherwise, that anyone under the age of six cannot have a birthday fall on a weekend. "Mommy will be at pre-school this morning, sweetie, to pass out treats." I reminded my four (almost five year old). "It's my birthday?" Frances asked, thrilled beyond belief. "No honey, not today. Remember, your real birthday is tomorrow, but because tomorrow is a Saturday, we're celebrating it at school today." Apparently what she heard was "Blah blah blah blah blah today blah blah blah blah birthday." because immediately following my very clear explanation, Frances squealed, "Today is my Birthday!" "Good God, NO!!!" I burst. "Today is not your birthday. Tomorrow is your birthday. Please try to stay with me here, Fran." "Can I open my presents?" she wanted to know, and I lost it. By the time I was finished, Frances was in tears and I was completed ashamed of myself. When I arrived, at exactly 9:10 am to pass out donut holes and read the class a book, Frances looked like every four, almost five, year old looks like on her birthday: excited, a little bit shy, slightly embarrassed, and very relieved that her Mommy was there to pass out treats--no matter what day it was.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

seventeen year old sluts

"Goodbye" my seventeen year old daughter waved to me as she headed out the door for a first date. "You look like a hooker." I yelled back. "Well, so did you last Friday night." she countered. "That may be," I allowed, "But the difference is, your father pays me very well to look dress like a hooker whereas this boy has yet to buy you dinner. Put on a sweater and raise your price." I advised. And I am happy to report that she did.