Saturday, November 14, 2009

If No Child is Left Behind, Where Was Mine?

By the second week of middle school, I had to crowbar my son Aidan onto the school bus. The classes were boring, he said. The teachers spent a lot of time yelling. All they did was worksheets and tests. “I thought middle school would be more interesting than elementary school,” he fumed, “but it's way worse.”
I kept battling, bribing and threatening to get him out the door. My two older children had gone to the same public school, which draws students from three towns and has a good reputation. They were in college now. Why couldn't Aidan settle in? What was different?
Everything. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 when Aidan was halfway through kindergarten, has turned the public school curriculum on its ear. This legislation requires public schools to administer standardized tests annually to all students. Where there was once time in the school day for projects and performances, there are now stacks of worksheets. Schools are expected to make yearly progress in upping student achievement scores, so teachers teach to the tests.
I was once in favor of this Act. Who doesn't want to see schools held accountable? But now I've changed my mind. Sure, the test scores might be rising, but at what cost?
Aidan – a bright, quirky kid identified for our regional gifted program in fourth grade, balked at many of his elementary school assignments and started sliding fast in middle school. Every Sunday morning, he'd moan about having to go to school on Monday. “The only time school is fun is when I'm getting into trouble,” he mumbled one night.
Uh oh, I thought. I'm losing him.
I met with his teachers. They noted Aidan's lack of focus and danced around the topic of medication for attention issues.
“He's getting A's and B's,” I pointed out. “He earns advanced scores on the MCAS tests.”
Meanwhile, Aidan was getting mouthier and meaner at home. He was withdrawing into his computer. When his dad and I complained about his attitude and threatened to take away the computer, he shrugged. “My life is over anyway,” he said. “I'm already dead at school.”
One afternoon, I noticed the sign for a Montessori school tucked between a couple of brick buildings in a nearby town. On a whim, Aidan and I went inside and talked to the head of school. She invited Aidan to spend a day with them.
The Montessori middle school classroom was nothing like the ones in his public school. There was a carpet and the walls were painted a soothing periwinkle blue. The windows were enormous. The kids called the teachers by their first names. In public school, Aidan switched classes every 55 minutes. At Montessori, group instruction was kept to a minimum and students were expected to organize their own schedules. Grades were almost nonexistent and students didn't have to take MCAS tests. Middle school kids still got an hour of recess.
After his first day at Montessori, Aidan came home puzzled but smiling. “I don't know what this is, Mom, but it doesn't feel like school,” he said. “The teachers aren't really like teachers. They're just people who want to help you learn.”
His dad and I spent a weekend thinking about this. We were on the fence about Montessori for two main reasons: 1) we worried that Aidan might just drift through Montessori's free-wheeling, creative curriculum without having to really learn anything; and 2) we felt like traitors and failures because our kid couldn't make it in public school.
I went online and looked up articles on Montessori. One of the most helpful was by Emily Bazelon in Slate on the eve of Montessori's 100th anniversary, at The Montssori teacher's site was also useful, at I discovered that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page credited their Montessori school educations for their development as creative, self-directed individuals at
We agreed to let Aidan switch to the Montessori school and waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely he would hang out with friends from his public school and beg to go back.
That didn't happen. In fact, each day Aidan was happier than the day before. He was excited about doing a project on the history of batteries. He started spouting facts about camels as he researched desert biomes. He began taking time on homework assignments. He respected his teachers and they respected him. No more yelling, in class or out, and no more resistance to going to school.
At the end of the second week, I picked Aidan up early from school for a doctor's appointment. When I entered his Montessori classroom, I saw two middle school students lying on the floor, quietly reading. A few children were gathered around the computers. One teacher was holding a writing conference with four students at a small table. Aidan and another boy were working on math puzzles. Music played in the background. There was the blissful hum of concentrated activity.
“You seem awfully relaxed,” I noted as we walked out to the car.
“I am,” Aidan said. “Maybe it's because at Montessori they let you do math in your socks.”
I thought about this, and decided that if I had to do algebra, I'd rather do it in my socks, too.
I left the Montessori school thinking about the students seated in rows at our public school, diligently taking multiple choice tests, memorizing the names of explorers, and studying pictures of rocks and plant cells. Our public school teachers work hard to do their jobs, and students work hard to do theirs. Somehow, though, we have managed to make factories out of our schools and drain all joy out of learning.
It was well-meaning legislation, but the No Child Left Behind Act has handcuffed our public school teachers and stripped the natural curiosity and passion that all children have for learning. There should be no child left behind, yet mine nearly was.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Two Women Bare It All

Our first morning at Berkshire Vista Resort, my friend Mandy sleeps late while I muster the courage to leave our room. The question isn’t so much what to wear, here, as what not to wear.
We arrived late and identified ourselves calmly enough at the security intercom, but our cool evaporated at the sight of a sign that said, “Caution, Nudists Crossing Ahead.”
“I can’t get out of the car,” Mandy laughed, clutching the steering wheel like a life preserver. “What if naked people suddenly jump out of the woods to greet us?”
I left her doubled up over the steering wheel and marched toward the inn, a restored 1770s farmhouse, expecting to find the office. Instead, when I climbed the steps and peered through the window, I spotted a couple of men in easy chairs. Naked.
I turned heel and fled. “Whose idea was this?” I gasped, crawling back into the car.
Mine, of course. Surfing the Net to find a nature camp for my kids, I typed in “naturist” and stumbled onto a list of nudist camps. Hundreds of them. I couldn’t believe it. I thought everyone put their clothes back on after free love and Woodstock.
Giggling, I telephoned Mandy to announce that I’d found the perfect present for her 40th birthday: A weekend at Berkshire Vista, the northeast’s only luxury nudist resort. “We’ll celebrate your birthday in our birthday suits,” I coaxed, “and laugh about our nudist days when we’re 80.”
I proposed the idea as a joke to cheer Mandy on through the last difficult days of her thirties. Although she is a successful professional in business for herself, her personal life has been rocky; she recently ended her wedding engagement and feels bereft and uncertain about her future. I fully expected her to call my buff, I mean bluff, as the Day of Our Unveiling approached. When it became clear that she was going to do no such thing, I panicked.
I couldn’t possibly go to a nudist camp with Mandy, of all people! She works out at the gym four times a week and maintains a perfect tan. When I treated Mandy to her birthday dinner, she ordered a lobster and ate it without butter, observing my plate of fried scallops with astonishment: “That’s more fat than I eat in a month!”
I’m a junk food maven whose favorite snack du jour is a handful of cookie dough. I have three kids and the body to prove it. Mandy wears bikinis to the beach, while I’ve graduated to bathing suits bigger than my mother’s. I’m so self-conscious about my body, in fact, that I sometimes feel awkward getting undressed in front of my husband.
Most of my friends sympathized. “A nudist camp? OH MY GOD!” one exclaimed. “Listen, you may be hesitant about being naked in front of your husband, but I don’t even like being naked in front of myself!”
My husband, however, tried to reassure me. “You’re a beautiful woman,” Dan said, then grinned. “If you want to practice ahead of time, I’m always available.”
I stared at him. “Don’t you even mind that I’m going to be naked in front of complete strangers? Or that, by the way, those strangers will also be buck naked in front of me?”
Dan, who once wore a ponytail and a long beard that made him look like an Amish farmer, shrugged off my concerns. After all, he still reminisces fondly about his glory days as a member of a hot tub club in San Francisco. “Social nudity is about acceptance, not sex,” he lectured.
Oh, sure. I lie in my bed and will the skies to open up. At least if it rains, I can twirl a strategically placed umbrella.
Along with the umbrella, my suitcase bulges with enough gear to survive a winter in the Himalaya. Facing all-new fashion dilemmas caused me to overpack. I knew I needed bug spray and a few gallons of sunscreen, but then I noticed a garden party on the resort’s agenda. How did one accessorize for such a thing? A big sun bonnet and open-toed shoes? And where would I keep my lipstick and keys? I couldn’t carry a purse.
In the end, I solved the purse dilemma with a fanny pack, trying not to visualize what I’d look like wearing that and nothing else. I also poured all of my necklaces out of the jewelry box and into the suitcase. With enough weight around my neck, surely I’d look thinner.
I can hear voices now, men and women chatting in the kitchen outside our bedroom door. Naked voices, I remind myself.
I get up and, still in my cotton nightie, peek outside the window. My first nudist of the day is a woman on the deck of her RV. She’s wearing a sweatshirt and bends over, bare-bottomed, to water a planter of pink flowers. My second nudist is a man walking his dog. He’s in a t-shirt and flip-flops, swinging bravely along the open road as he and the dog trot down the path towards the brook.
It’s not raining, but I’m in luck: It’s chilly enough for a few people to wear sweat pants and tops. I’m one of them. I vowed to shed one article of clothing at a time, though, so that means no bra to breakfast. Mandy is still asleep, her blankets pulled up to her chin, as I let myself fall prey to gravity and slip out of the bedroom.
Headed into the restaurant, I rely on peripheral vision to avoid staring. A hairy man looms up on the other side of the pool fence like a grizzly bear on hind legs, drying himself on a towel the size of a handkerchief. A topless woman pushes her naked toddler on a playground swing, and a man wearing only a baseball cap squats next to a motorcycle. I don’t relax until I’m on the clubhouse deck, where I focus on the rolling hills that form a bright green basin around the resort.
When the sun comes out, the place has the giddy atmosphere of a summer camp. Campers bounce about the tennis courts, wearing only sneakers, and two elderly men toss a Frisbee with the glee of undiapered toddlers. I remind myself that the athletes of ancient Greece were naked, as I make the stunning observation that I’m among the most petite women here. I’m also one of the youngest. I had expected Aphrodite and Adonis, but this place is crawling with Ozzies and Harriets with broad smiles, fantastic tans and big bottoms. So this is where all of the flower children have gone!
As the temperature rises, the only people still dressed are the clubhouse bartender and waitress. “Well, at least you’re down to shorts,” one friendly fellow teases, striding past us with his wife. This couple is our age, and they have identical blonde manes of shoulder-length hair brushing their bare shoulders. Both wear shorts.
“So are you,” I observe.
“I hate carrying a towel.” He lifts the front flap of his dungarees to show us that he’s really not wearing shorts, but a skirt. And, as with all men in kilts, the mystery ends when the breezes blow.
Mandy and I decide to hike. If we’re hot, we’ll be more inspired to bare it all. “Are you going to wear earrings?” Mandy asks me anxiously. “Earrings and lipstick do seem sort of superfluous here, don’t they?”
“I’ll wear my most slimming earrings,” I declare, “and just one article of clothing.” I pull a sundress out of my suitcase and go into the bathroom to put it on. “Why am I closing the door, when in just a few hours I’ll be frolicking naked in the freesias at the garden party?”
“I don’t know,” Mandy answers, as I emerge from the bathroom and find her pulling on a t-shirt that reaches to her knees. “But I’m leaving my underpants on.”
Within an hour we’re sweaty and changing into our, uh, into nothing but towels for a swim. The brochure strictly states that this is a clothing-optional resort, but “Nudity is required in the pool, hot tubs and sauna. No bathing suits,” they add, in case anyone misunderstands.
We pause by the pool fence, still safely cocooned in our enormous towels, to watch a man wearing only sneakers erect a trellis for the garden party. “I understand why I’m reluctant to get undressed,” I tell Mandy. “I’m overweight and pasty white. But you’ve got the body of a goddess!”
“My breasts are too small,” Mandy argues. “Besides, your body is the way it is because you’ve had kids. I’m 40 years old and my body hasn’t done the work I think it’s supposed to do. Sure, I’m thin, but what’s the worth in that, at the end of a life? Nothing.”
I’m sad that she feels this way, and tell her so. Still, the fact that Mandy feels self-conscious, too, lets me take the final step. I drop my towel onto a pool chair and scuttle over to the outdoor showers, where a shriveled gnome of a man chats up an attractive blonde woman. Like many women here, the blonde has gone in for some decorative shaving. The result is a fuzzy caterpillar creeping downward from her navel. Another woman by the showers has two enormous nipple rings, leading me to think, Ow! Then I wonder whether, in fact, most people are more ornamental without clothing than I’d realized. How would I know? I’ve never even seen my own mother naked.
I’m content in the pool, where I have the illusion of being less exposed while my breasts bob along with me like a pair of happy white ducks. It’s not so bad being naked when I lie down in the sun, either. For one thing, my stomach looks flat. For another, the woman beside me is nearly twice my size. She’s sprawled across the chair the way my kids lounge in front of the television, leaving no place where the sun can’t shine. This is the first time in my life that I can contemplate the entire visual spectrum of the human condition, and that spectrum seems infinite. I am lying in a sea of flesh, and all around me are the old and the young, the thin and the fat, the hairy and the bald, the pierced and the unadorned.
That afternoon, Mandy and I don sunhats, bangles and beads. Clanking and tinkling, we follow the parade of people to the garden party in the Snob Hill area of the campground and discover an amazing fact: What nudists do for fun is dress up. The men are in top hats and spats, bow ties and cummerbunds. One woman wears white lace gloves and carries a parasol, another has chosen a black nightgown clasped at the neck with an elaborate brooch. There are a lot of sarongs and fanciful clothing created from scarves tied in fancy ways. These chatty couples all seem to have been nudists for decades and married even longer. Most of their grown children have no idea; they think Mom and Dad are just off camping again.
There are overflowing window boxes and elegant gardens, tasty snacks and, at one trailer, a tiny toad orchestra tooting away on a table. Someone sets up a croquet game and there’s a sale table to benefit a legal fund for nudists. It all feels like a PTA carnival at our elementary school, as I talk to two lawyers and an engineer, a construction worker and a teacher, a speech therapist and a banker. The key difference is that, without clothes, you can’t tell a ditch digger from a doctor. Nudists, I realize, are part of a subculture, like golfers or birders. And my husband was right: Nudism has nothing to do with sexuality, but with finding an activity you enjoy and seeking out places where you can practice it and feel accepted.
The party blooms into the night, when we all gather at the clubhouse dance. Mandy and I borrow dresses from our new nudist friends, since scanty evening wear is the one thing neither of us packed. Mandy’s is black and fits her like an ace bandage; mine is a filmy, copper-colored gown.
“This will bring out the highlights in your hair!” promised the owner of the dress.
The highlights in my hair? This dress is invisible! But it’s perfect for the dance, where a disco light swirls over people who leap, amble, hop, and sway to every wedding reception favorite from The Macarena to The Electric Slide.
Afterward, Mandy and I go back to our room and reverse our normal routines, going naked by day and then dressing in our comfy pajamas at night. “So what do you think of all this?” I ask her.
“Well,” she mumbles around her toothbrush -- by now we can do almost anything in front of each other -- “I’ll be glad to get back to the safe comfort of my clothes. But it’s certainly interesting to get a new perspective on aging and on the self-created shame most of us feel about our bodies.”
I think about this the next morning, when it really is raining and I find that I’m slightly disappointed. I’m not as anxious to zip, tuck and button myself back into clothing as Mandy. In fact, even my nightgown feels like too much right now.
I undress and shower, then wander into the kitchen to make tea, a towel draped over my shoulder. It’s a little odd, since I wouldn’t even walk around this way in my own house, and I almost wrap the towel around me. But then, through the kitchen window, I see several of the couples I met the night before. They’re soaking in the hot tub on the deck, never mind the rain, and laughing. One woman sees me and motions for me to join them.
I hesitate only a moment before I do it. Everyone slides over on the benches to make room, and the warm water rising to my rain-cooled shoulders feels like a blanket. I glance at the gray sky and have a sudden memory of the time I hired a small plane at the local airport to fly me over our town, of how astonishing it was to see our home as just another rooftop. Our house would have been nearly indistinguishable from the others, if I didn’t know the life within its walls. Just as now, from up above, my body would look like all of these other bodies next to mine, our heads tipped back to enjoy the rain on our faces.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Midlife Crisis Shoes

Last month I took my son Blaise out to lunch at his favorite diner.“Wait!” I implored as I teetered across the parking lot after him. “I can't go that fast. Walking in these new shoes is like walking on stilts.”
Blaise turned and glanced down at my feet, encased in a pair of brand new embroidered espadrilles with 2-inch wedge heels. “What are those, your midlife crisis shoes?”
Definitely. With four kids in college and one in junior high, it's high time for my midlife crisis. Shoes are cheaper than a boob job, a tummy tuck or a new car. That was my rationale, anyway, when I decided to spring for a pair of comfortable heels.
Except that now I had to wonder if “comfortable heels” was an oxymoron. Imported from Spain, those ankle-twisting espadrilles had called my name from the top shelf of a boutique while I was shopping with my daughter, Taylor. Taylor's blond curls, blue eyes and perfect runner's body make her look runway ready in anything from flip flops to Gortex boots, but she's a sucker for pretty shoes. When she spotted these exotic espadrilles, she had to try them. “These are the most comfortable shoes I'll ever own,” she declared.
Since I was footing the bill, Taylor urged me to buy a matching pair. “You'll love them,” she said.
I didn't. As it turned out, my luncheon foray in espadrilles was a near-death experience when I tipped over into a pothole, then had to curl my toes like Aladdin so I wouldn't fall out of my shoes while climbing up the diner stairs.
I came home feeling old. I grew up in the age of platforms, kind of like the ones Meryl Streep struts around in during Mama Mia, and I loved how they made me look leggy, hip-swishing and, well, taller. I'm 5'3” on my best posture days, so wearing heels in my youth was a guarantee that I could reach the wine glasses on the top shelf. Besides my platforms, I owned red stilettos, pointy black boots and working women's pumps. As a young woman I always chose beauty over comfort: I had lethal chandelier earrings that scraped my neck, tummy-tightening pantyhose and underwire bras that could come unleashed at any moment and stab me through the ribcage. God, I looked good.
Then, somewhere between motherhood and deciding to work in a home office, I took off my earrings and kicked off my heels in favor of sensible flats. My favorite shoes are black, round-toed Merrills that make me look like a nun, no matter how often I tell myself that they make me look like a British mystery novelist hiking the moors.
The night after my espadrilles escapade, I modeled the Merrills for my stepson Drew, who just finished a film internship in Los Angeles and is the family's resident fashionista. “What do you think of these shoes?” I asked.
“They scream 'unavailable,'” he said at once. “But at least they're one step up from Crocs.”
That did it. I set out on a mission. There had to be comfortable heels out there. After all, I am no reality show virgin. I've seen Dancing with the Stars. Those people don't just walk in heels, they dance in them! Even intellectual women manage to get around in heels. Sure, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fell and cracked her ankle while rushing to board an airplane in heels. But there she was, just minutes later, filmed using crutches but wearing a sexy black high heel on her good foot!
For my next foray into the upper reaches of footwear, I went with a pair of cute gray El Naturalista shoes stamped with abstract ivory designs. They had a respectable heel, just under two inches of comfy looking cork. I fell in love with the little frog label, too.
The woman in the shoe store gushed. “Naturalistas are made of all natural materials, so they're not just good for your feet. They're good for the environment!”
“Great,” I said. “But can I walk in them?”
“You'll never need another pair of shoes,” she vowed.
Okay, maybe she didn't mean to say that. What shoe clerk would ever tell you to put your wallet away? The point is, I bought that pair of shoes for philosophical reasons: I wanted to be a Naturalista! According to the company's web site, “Naturalistas start their journey observing everything that surrounds them. They travel through the world and observe it, becoming impregnated by its textures, its colors, its lines... and after a thousand journeys, real and imaginary, they discover that a single idea brings us together. Whatever our race or culture... we all walk in search of happiness. Movement is El Naturalista´s reason to exist. That is why we enjoy creating comfortable and attractive footwear, that helps us to move along the amazing journey of life.”
Formerly impregnated with children, as a Naturalista I could now bravely move along in my amazing journey of life in environmentally correct high heels! I was ready to become impregnated anew with textures, colors and lines.
Alas, my journey proved to be a short one. I wore my new Naturalistas to a marketing meeting – they went perfectly with my swishy gray mid-calf skirt and slinky black sweater – only to tear them off the minute I was out in the hallway an hour later.
“Cool shoes,” my colleague Laura remarked as I was limping back to the car. “Are they comfortable?”
“Sure,” I said through clenched teeth. “It's kind of like not noticing you sprained an ankle because your feet are on fire.”
Maybe I was going about this all wrong. Maybe wearing high heels was like learning to ride a bike: I should start with training wheels before navigating stairs on a unicycle. On my next shoe store odyssey, I opted for black leather Ecco pumps with a 1.5” heel. These were more streamlined and less Croc-ish than my Merrills, more pilgrim than nun. Their motto was good, too, or at least shorter: My world, my style, my Ecco!
Alas, my world, or at least my foot, was too wide for an Ecco. After half a morning these shoes made my feet feel bound in baling twine.
“High heels that don't fit are a torture chamber all their own,” I complained to my husband.
“Why are you even bothering?” he asked. “Men don't notice a woman's shoes. To me, women in heels look like hooved animals.”
If my husband didn't care about high heels, why did I? I thought about the waitress who had served me in one of our local restaurants recently. She was French and wore high heels to serve scrambled eggs, along with dangling earrings and a beautiful bell-sleeved wrap dress. I wanted to look that put together at least sometimes.
Over the next few weeks I went through all of the shoe outlets north of us. I started with Ariats, Clarks, Danskos and other brands that advertised sensible comfort and offered chunky, clunky heels. The problem was that these shoes might be tall, but they were undeniably ugly. I might as well go back to Merrills. I moved on up to the pointiest, tallest dancer shoes, some of which had wraps and ties that made me feel like I should wear a toga with them.
At one point, I fell head-over-heels for a pair of gold Elites close to three inches high; these shoes had a gold patent leather upper and special cushioning inside that looked and felt like bath mats, with all of those little dots. I'd gotten smarter, however, and wasn't about to buy any of the shoes I tried on if they felt even a little bit uncomfortable. A shoe that's too snug or slips on your heel in the store will feel like a snake is biting your toes or a dog is chewing your heels when you wear it doing anything other than sitting down. I really wanted those Elites. I visited them three times, walking for fifteen minutes up and down the shoe store aisles during each of our encounters, willing them to be comfortable. Eventually, I had to give up. The straps around my heels weren't enough to keep me from sliding around. Even Cinderella, with her fairy godmother tailoring her shoes to keep her stepsisters out of them, couldn't have danced in those.
Finally, I went to the swankiest shoe store within an hour of my house and explained my situation to the patient clerk. What I needed, the clerk said, were heels made of top quality leather, because those would be softer. A pillow insole would be a good thing, too.
“Here,” she said. “Try these.” She handed me a white box with an abstract design in bright green and yellow green. Inside it snuggled a pair of black Joy Chen shoes with 2 ½-inch heels. The shoes had a closed back, an open toe, a wide elastic strap, and a snazzy gold interior. The heels were thick but not wedged. In fact, the shoes were shaped like an elegant bridge, or even a piece of art. I was instantly in love.
I tried them on. I walked around. My feet didn't seem to notice. I looked in the mirror and still saw a middle-aged woman in jeans, only this woman was elegant and lanky. I saw me, only better.
“Let's try one more thing,” the clerk suggested. She ripped open a packet of little gray rubbery things shaped like clouds, called “Tip Toes,” and thrust them into the Joy Chen shoes.
I put the shoes back on. “Wow,” I said.
I walked. I jogged. I pranced in place. I had found my shoes! And the best part? They were on sale.
The next day, I had a meeting with an attorney over a house sale. I wore my Merrill's as far as the lawyer's parking lot, not wanting to chance driving in heels. Another obstacle presented itself as I got out of the car: a gravel path leading to a steep set of stairs made out of rough timbers. Could I do it? I cast a wistful glance at my abandoned Merrill's, but squared my shoulders and got out of the car in my heels.
There was nothing to it! I could have run up those stairs!
I shook hands with the lawyer, and I swear to you that he looked me in the eye, then did one of those looks men do when they think you're not noticing. It might not have been the shoes. After all, the shoes had inspired me to wear earrings and lipstick, too. But after the meeting, I drove home in my Joy Chen's with the windows down and the radio on, feeling like it was spring all over again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Bride Wore Red

While my friend Judith tried on dresses, I watched the brides.
There were six of them in the tiny wedding boutique. The brides had brought mothers and friends to help sort through the racks of silk and chiffon. The gowns billowed as the brides carried them to the dressing rooms, yards of promise held aloft by young arms and hope. We friends and mothers gathered on the floral armchairs and watched as, one by one, the brides climbed to the single stool in the middle of the room like awkward birds of paradise taking turns on a mirrored perch.
My friend Judith was the reason I was sitting here instead of hanging out on the playground with Dan and our four children on this bright September Saturday afternoon. “This is the place where you and I will both find perfect wedding dresses,” she had crowed as we pulled up to the shop. “I feel it in my bones!”
Amazingly, Judith's determined use of online dating services had led her into the arms of a man she wanted to marry. I was getting married to Dan in four weeks. The fact that we were both, as she loved to say, “betrothed,” should have brought us together. But I was feeling increasingly isolated. This was Judith's first wedding and my second. Plus, my backyard ceremony would include our four children – Maya, Taylor, Blaise and Drew were 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old – so Dan and I had invited their friends as well as ours to celebrate the creation of our new family. Of our 96 guests, half were going to be children. Our crowd ranged in age from three months to 91 years old.
I hung back as Judith plunged into the racks and started trying on dresses – all of them white and strapless to show off her toned arms and slim waist. She giggled along with the other brides as the sales clerks pinned dresses here and lifted hems there to give every bride the perfect princess fit.
I'd never felt so old. I was 39, old enough to be the mother of some of these brides. In fact, I was a mother. I didn't belong here.
Judith made me try on four gowns, each dress worse than the last. “I can't wear a dress that I can't zip up by myself,” I declared. “And I don't want to wear something that I'll trip on when I have to go upstairs to help the kids get dressed.”
“What's the matter with you?” she grumped on our way back to the car. “You're not even excited about trying on dresses! You act like you don't even want to get married.”
Was that true? I loved Dan with all my heart. Yet, the reality of my approaching marriage was getting on my nerves. I kept wiggling it like a sore tooth, poking at it in places that I knew would hurt. Getting married with children meant that the details of domestic life – the school lunches, the laundry, the mortgage, the car repairs, the holidays – would swell around us like a river of responsibility with unseen rapids. We would surely be swept away from each other.
“Well?” Judith demanded. “Do you want to get married or not?”
“I do,” I said, taking a deep breath, but I couldn't say any more. Just practicing those two words aloud had sapped the last of my courage.
A week before the wedding, I finally bought a wedding dress. It was red. Not fire engine red, but a deep red lace the color of a pricey claret draped over an even deeper red satin. The neckline was low but not too slutty for a mother to wear, and the skirt moved so easily with me that I could imagine grocery shopping in it – a possibility that I did not exclude from my imaginings of what might really happen on my wedding day. (With four children, you never knew when you might run out of milk.) As an added plus, the dress was on sale; I paid less than $50 for it.
Our daughters, both fashionistas who changed their outfits three or four times daily at the ripe ages of 5 and 6, were horrified by the sight of my dress swaying brazenly on its hanger.
“But it's red,” my daughter Taylor wailed. “Brides should wear white!”
“It's true. You don't look like you're getting married,” Dan's daughter, Maya, agreed mournfully.
It was such a rare thing, having these two girls agree – our daughters sometimes played well together, but couldn't seem to get past the idea that neither was the only girl in her family any more – that I momentarily thought of returning the dress and getting a white one to make them happy. I still had a whole week left to shop!
But no. Our wedding was the start of a different sort of life for both Dan and me, I reminded myself. We wanted to be in a marriage where we could be truer to ourselves than we had been in our previous relationships.
I finally hit on the perfect solution. “How would you two like to wear the white dresses?” I offered.
The girls were ecstatic. By some miracle, the week before the wedding I found two matching white dresses with full skirts and lacy underskirts. We bought matching white Mary Janes, too. Oh, and veils. The girls wanted headbands with veils, and I found them in a costume shop for less than $10 each.
As the girls dressed for the wedding, they asked if they could use their dresses to play in afterward. I said yes, why not, and they immediately started arguing.
“I should be the princess bride when we play, because I'm older,” Taylor asserted. “Besides, you're just the stepsister.”
“You're a stepsister, too,” Maya reminded her. “Besides, in stories the real princess bride is always the youngest.”
I left them to it and went to put on my red dress, worrying about how it would turn out for our daughters. Would they grow up to tell their friends about the special day when they first became sisters and each gained a new brother? Or would the arguments escalate, until by their teens they scarcely spoke, and in the end they wouldn't even attend each other's weddings?
I shuddered. There are so many unknowns when you marry. But, when you marry with children, these unknowns spool out into infinity.
It had started to rain early that morning, a light drizzle from a pewter sky. Luckily, we had ordered tents for the backyard. The rain added to the beauty of it, as the tents caught a kaleidoscope of falling leaves, like handmade Japanese paper in a complex geometric pattern of reds, oranges, and yellows.
At any wedding, being the bride means that you're in a fugue state of anxiety. You know less about what's going on than anyone else there. I do know there were the usual last-minute crises. Our boys refused to put on their neckties and scratchy jackets; they wanted to wear their black Ninja Turtle t-shirts. “We want a Ninja wedding!” they cried, karate chopping each other.
Dan finally coerced them into their suits by bribing them with $5 each. Twenty minutes later, Dan insulted my mother when he banished her from our bedroom as we were getting dressed.
“But she's the bride,” Mom said. “You're not supposed to see her before the ceremony. It's bad luck!”
“Yes,” Dan said, not unkindly. “But this is my bedroom, and I need to get dressed.”
I kissed him, impressed that he would have the courage to stand up to my mother – few men did – but I worried about bad luck just the same.
As we stood in front of the minister beneath the tents, I tensed my shoulders as we got to the part where we had to read the vows we'd written for each other. My vows seemed lame in front of this crowd of well-wishers. My children, the people dearest to my heart, stood next to me, and Dan's children, their faces pale and expectant, stood next to him. What were we doing, bringing these children together when they really had no say in the matter? What right did we have to turn their young lives upside down forever?
Just then, our dog – a white American Eskimo named Ben, who the girls had adorned with a deep red bow to match my dress – wandered up the aisle to stand with us. Everyone, even the minister, started to laugh as Ben wagged his tail and tipped his snout up in the air – sniffing the lamb kabobs the caterers were grilling, no doubt – and I suddenly felt an overwhelming love for everyone there: Dan and our children, our family who had traveled so far to be with us, and the furry, benevolent presence of this white dog. I said my vows.
During the reception, our sons, having kept up their end of the bargain and earned their $5, tore off their ties and suit jackets and wore their t-shirts. My grandmother and her two sisters, all three of them in their eighties, sang, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart!” And our children danced together with their friends -- the chicken dance, the hamster dance, and the Macarena -- between nibbling on treats in the separate children's tent.
Dan and I danced with our daughters on our wedding day, too, holding their hands as their white skirts billowed around them, our girls like two tiny, giggling brides just beginning to learn about love.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The New Shape of Family

The night before my niece Lizzie's wedding, we attended a rehearsal dinner unlike any other I've ever experienced. For one thing, it was in a bowling alley. A bowling alley! There was a Mexican buffet and an open bar. We gathered in a tap room next to the lanes and loaded up our tacos, then sat and listened to speeches the way people do at weddings all over the world.
Except, at this dinner, I clearly saw the new shape of family in the United States. Lizzie, the cute blond bride, isn't really related to me. She is my husband's niece. He is my second husband, and between us we have five children: two of his, two of mine, and one of our own. The bride's mother and father are divorced, but both were in the taco line. So were the bride's stepmother, the bride's three siblings and two of her step-siblings. The groom, whose own parents are out of the picture, was accompanied by the woman who raised him. She arrived on a motorcycle with her boyfriend, who she described as her “balance partner” after a hand-binding commitment ceremony. Most of the grandparents were there, too, smiling and dipping into the guacamole and chips.
During dinner, everyone sat at tables according to family ties. But after the buffet and speeches, we all drifted out to the lanes. The bowling balls glowed yellow and pink, orange and blue in the black light, and the rock music was punctuated by the pinging of arcade machines. We donned our bowling shoes and started downing pins: children with adults, step-cousins and step-siblings with cousins and siblings, ex-laws with in-laws. As the pins came down, the family divisions blurred and we were all bowling together.
Among the shrieking and victory dances on the bowling lanes, under the black light that turned our white buttons and laces blue, I remembered my first wedding. That marriage ended in a painful divorce after two children in seven years. Just like Jon and Kate Plus Eight, my ex and I shared a house for a while after we were separated, trying to disrupt the children's lives as little as possible. It wasn't a mansion, and we didn't have nannies and security guards, but it worked well enough. “If you can do that,” my mother proclaimed, “then you can stay married.”
Sadly, no. But what we could do was remember the qualities we loved in each other and be civil for the sake of the kids. As Arianna Huffington pointed out in describing her own vacation with her ex (, divorce can be dignified. Our children deserve the best of us even when the marriage bonds we once thought permanent fray and break. This is an important lesson, since blended families are now the norm and the majority of American families are in some form of step arrangement, according to The Stepfamily Foundation ( In fact, The Council on Contemporary Families reports that at least 65 percent of remarriages involve children younger than 19 (
Lizzie's wedding took place in a garden the next day. Her dress sparkled in the sunlight and we were surrounded by lilies and roses. But what made the day so different, so perfect, was the fact that each of us felt surrounded by an abundance of love and acceptance.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mark Sanford Makes Vampire Love Look Good

So Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina wasn't hiking on the Appalachian Trail, as his staff led us to believe. Nor was he off alone to “clear his head” as his wife reported. Nope. Republican Governor Sanford was hiding out with an Argentinian lover who signed her emails with “sweet kisses” and “I'll dream with you”
Meanwhile, we, the incredulous public, are still reeling from TLC reality couple Jon and Kate's decision to split after Jon's alleged affair with a preschool teacher. And that's after picking our jaws up off the floor following revelations that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was smitten with a prostitute named Kristen.
Why the great shag fest? Because, as anybody who tries it knows, marriage is tough. It's an institution held together by duct tape that unravels over time, when romantic notions crumble beneath the collective weight of parenting, vacuuming and bill paying.
I have proof. For many years, I was a sex and marriage columnist for three different women's magazines. A lot of letters started like this: “My wife is too tired for sex.” Even where bonfires once raged, embers cooled: “I'm no longer attracted to my wife since she became such a fatso.” Or, “My husband's a workaholic and I met the perfect man on the Internet. Is phone sex cheating?”
When I first started reading these letters and scouring the country for experts to dish out advice, I was in a state of disbelief. According to the media, everybody is having great sex all of the time, even married people, and orgasms are as easy to come by as sneezes. Then one night I went to a dinner party with friends and the women began talking about how they avoided sex with their husbands. One woman said, “I know not to smile at my husband when I get into bed, because then he thinks I'm in the mood. I'd rather read a good mystery novel than have sex.” Another told me, “If my husband is still awake when I go to bed, I make some excuse, like I have to go downstairs and make sure all of the lights are out. By the time I come back up, I know he'll be snoring and I'm off the hook.”
Say what? But that's not as bad as the hot tub party I went to a few months later -- women only, all of us in bathing suits, nothing kinky, sorry – where we played one of those truth-or-dare games after a few fizzy drinks. One question went like this: “If your vagina was an article of clothing, what would it be?” Hot, right? Except that most answers went like this: “A shut purse,” “A worn out sweater,” “A tattered pair of stockings,” or some other forlorn item.
More recently, I went to my book club's discussion of Twilight, that soft porn vampire novel. This was a true literary love fest among our book club members – soccer and baseball moms, mostly – who crooned over Edward, the vampire hero at the heart of that series. Why? Because Edward is a true gentleman, a guy determined to keep his lover safe by not biting her neck, no matter how good she smells. Chivalry is not dead. You just need to find a vampire lover strong enough to race through the forest while carrying you on his back.
What does this all add up to? I'm not sure, except that I'm not surprised that Jon chose a preschool teacher over hypercritical Kate, or that Mark Sanford ran away to Argentina, to a woman who signs off her emails with, “I'll dream with you.” Dreams and lovers, and maybe even prostitutes, are much easier to take than the thorny reality of slogging through children and housework, jobs and disappointments, death and taxes, with only occasional moments to embrace between chores. Those of us who stay married might not make the papers, but we are truly making love.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Teachers Don't Like Boys, Mom"

A couple of weeks ago, I was volunteering at my son Aidan's elementary school after hours. The building was empty but for a knot of teachers clustered in the hallway. As we entered his classroom, Aidan leaped up to touch the door frame. Immediately, one of the teachers scolded him about safety.
Aidan apologized. As soon as we were alone, though, he rolled his eyes at me. “Teachers don't like boys, Mom. If I was a girl, she never would have said anything.”
“They're just trying to keep you safe,” I said.
Still, I couldn't help wishing, as I do so often, that we had better schools for boys.
I say this with resignation as another school year draws to a close. Now that Aidan, the youngest of our five children, is in sixth grade, I have little hope that the system will change. Our public school curriculum in Massachusetts, as in so many states, is designed to help students conquer basic skills and prepare for the state-administered MCAS exam. Not a bad goal. Just one problem: our teachers now scramble to teach to the tests. This means lots of worksheets get handed out and there's little time left for creative, hands-on projects.
This is a tragedy, especially for boys. Research tells us what most parents know: boys are apt to be “kinesthetic learners.” That's educatorspeak for the fact that most boys learn best while they're in motion. Boys want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. They want to build things and take them apart, trap small animals and climb tall trees. Or jump up and touch whatever they can.
As Aidan observed once, after spending an entire science class watching a movie about the life cycle of frogs, “We'd learn a lot more if the teacher just brought tadpoles and frogs into the classroom and we could look at them.”
Students in our public schools are rewarded for being quiet and respectful, for scoring well on tests, for coloring inside the lines, for collaborating instead of competing, for writing about their feelings, and for civilized classroom behaviors that don't include farting or burping. All fine skills. The thing is, most girls – I'm basing this on our own family of three boys and two girls, plus the children of friends – seem to want to please their teachers and be praised. That's why so many more school valedictorians are girls. The boys, not so much. Until you show them why something matters in the outside world, they mostly don't see the point of doing something that bores them silly. And I mean silly.
It doesn't help matters that most teachers are hard-working, well-meaning women who are already overwhelmed with the responsibilities heaped on them by school administrators, inclusive classrooms, parents, needy kids and the threat, always, of losing their jobs or having their pay cut. Would things be different if more men populated our classrooms? I have no idea. I only know that, as it stands now, boys are more likely to fail in school and to be three times more likely to be labeled as ADHD than girls because of their activity level ( Aidan earns A's and B's in school, yet I'm constantly fighting battles like this one: When he misbehaves, his teachers take away recess. Please. Are they out of their Vulcan minds?
Recently, I was walking with a few friends and listening to their lamentations about next year's teachers and class sizes. When they asked my opinion, they were shocked when I shrugged and said, “Maybe it doesn't matter. It's just school.”
But I can't help seeing school as a necessary evil instead of an inspiration. It's great that Aidan has learned how to do algebra, read a map, write an essay and navigate social situations without a black eye. Outside of school, though, is where Aidan does most of his real learning. He pursues his interests with passion: rock climbing, coin collecting, fishing, engineering, snowboarding. Our house is one big science lab; in recent months Aidan has built a hovercraft in the driveway, figured out that you could shrink potato chip bags in the microwave oven, and erected a K'nex roller coaster taller than he is. He has memorized the periodic table and taken apart an old computer. He surprised me in the kitchen by saying, “Here's a cool invention for kids, Mom,” and pushing a cup of milk onto the ice dispenser of our freezer. Instead of dispensing ice, cereal came pouring out of the freezer and fell into his cup of milk. Messy, but way cool.
What would a perfect school for boys be like? Classes would be small and held outside half the time. Boys of all abilities and temperaments would build, paint, draw, take things apart, play computer games and listen to music while reading if they felt like it. If they wanted to write about volcanoes instead of the weather, or study the Civil War in January instead of September, why not let them choose? And, if they wanted to do math standing up or run a few laps between exams, why not?
Oh, wait. Our boys couldn't do that. That would be breaking the rules.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The American Gerbil Show: What Our Pets Teach Us

The animals were groomed and shiny. The judges wore white coats and serious expressions as they rated the furry contestants for conformation, color and disposition. There were competitions for agility and speed. Every owner hoped to win Best in Show.
Was this The Westminster Dog Show? Nope. This was the American Gerbil Show. The competitors may only be palm-size rodents with tufted tails, but their owners still eagerly trekked to this year's Massachusetts show from as far away as Nebraska to talk gerbil.
The American Gerbil Show is held twice each year by The American Gerbil Society. Some of the day's events are just for fun, like the Gerbil Olympics, where pet gerbils take on paper tubes to prove their jaw power and race against each other in plastic balls. Their owners cheer them on from the sidelines, shouting things like, “Yeah, you got this! Go, go, go!” When it comes to exhibiting groupie level enthusiasm for these curious rodents, it's tough to tell the kids from the adults.
But serious business is conducted at these shows, too. Gerbil enthusiasts have been breeding these pocket kangaroos since the animals were first imported to this country from Japan in 1954. By now, the color variations have spun out far beyond the golden agouti gerbils that my own father once raised by the thousands. Today there are lilac and nutmeg gerbils, Siamese and Burmese gerbils, dove and polar fox gerbils, honey cream and silver fox, and many more.
There is even, as of this spring, a blue gerbil in the United States, shown by the show's coordinator, Libby Hanna. Her devoted husband flew to Helsinki, Finland to pick up the animals, turned around in the airport, and flew right back – his Christmas gift to Libby. “Massachusetts is a real hot spot for gerbils,” she assured me. “We had to have blue gerbils.”
The new blue gerbils were certainly a show stopper. So was Herman the Show Jumping Gerbil, an athletic YouTube celebrity ( who is even more debonair in person than on screen.
A few side tables at the American Gerbil Show displayed gerbil paraphernalia for sale: gerbil purses and gerbil hats, wooden gerbil houses, gerbil art and gerbil books. There were even hand-knitted gerbils trucked all the way from Ohio by their creator.
As I mingled with the gerbil fanciers, I couldn't help but recall one of my mother's favorite sayings: “There's a lid for every pot.” These were people who wear their passions emblazoned on their t-shirts: American Gerbil Society: Christmas Revels, Audubon Society. If they weren't here, this crowd would be out walking for good causes.
One example: Tom and Renee. Tom tells me that he's had pet gerbils since the 1960s. These days he specializes in rescuing gerbils with disabilities, like his personal favorite, a blind gerbil called “Blindy.” In an unfortunate incident, Blindy once caught his leg in the crack of a coconut shell while taking a dust bath. Blindy couldn't see which way to pull his leg out, Tom explained, so he thrashed around and broke it. Tom and Renee had to nurse him back to health.
“It was a good thing that happened, really,” Tom mused, because it showed their adopted son that, “when parents love you, they don't abandon you. They take care of you no matter what happens. It was a good lesson in love.”
Good lessons in love: that's what our pets, small or large, teach us all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Singer Susan Boyle: The Poster Child for Late Bloomers

As I stumble through American Idol withdrawal and recover from the fact that vanilla is still the flavor of choice in the U.S. whether we're talking ice cream or singers, I've been increasingly thankful for Susan Boyle, the hairy angel on Britain's Got Talent. Whether she wins or loses the chance to sing for the Queen, she is the inspirational poster child for late bloomers everywhere.
Besides looking like that crazy spinster aunt in Wal-Mart clothes that your mother always invites to dinner because she lives alone with her cat, Boyle is a creaking forty-eight years old. That's right: she's more than twice the age of Kris Allen, our newly crowned American Idol. Yet, Boyle's age, hairy church lady looks and lousy luck in love didn't deter our feisty lass from climbing up on stage and belting out “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables in a way that made even the only female judge, Botox beauty Amanda Holden, cast cow-eyed looks of awe at this unlikely Scottish songbird.
Why did this performance become such an instant viral plague on YouTube that even my son sent it to me via his college email? It wasn't just for that okay tear jerker of a song. It was because Susan Boyle gives all late bloomers hope that we still have a chance to realize our own dreams. Want to be a singer? Write the great American novel? Run a marathon? Be a millionaire? Take up painting? Invent a flying car? Sail around the world? Watching Susan Boyle, we know it's not too late! Even if I could wave a magic wand and somehow combine Kris Allen and Adam Lambert into one perfect manchild megastar, they could never do that. They're too beautiful. And way, way too young.
As writer Malcolm Gladwell noted in his wonderful October 20, 2008 New Yorker essay, “Late Bloomers” (, “doing something truly creative, we're inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” He points out notable examples of that, from Orson Welles to Mozart. However, Gladwell goes on to note that many geniuses are late bloomers, not prodigies who burst out of the gates at age fifteen, talents and ambitions razor sharp. Late bloomers muddle ahead, experimenting and failing and trudging forward for decades before they're a success, or even noticed at all. Until then, many late bloomers are perceived as failures. They have to rely on mundane jobs (think of Einstein toiling away in his patent office) or kindly patrons as they inch forward toward their dreams.
What's so inspiring about Susan Boyle? She dreamed her dream not for a mere seventeen years, like bluesy, confident American Idol finalist Allison Iraheta, so perfectly at home on stage next to veteran rocker Cyndi Lauper, but for almost half a century. Now that's star power.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Why Our Stories Matter

The last time I called my father, he asked me what time it was.
“Don't you have a watch, Dad?” I asked.
“No, they always take those away when you travel, and the clocks in the train station are all wrong,” he answered.
“He thinks he's going on a trip,” said my brother, who'd driven down to Myrtle Beach from New York to visit Dad in the hospital. “He keeps trying to do up his seatbelt.”
Dad was going on a trip. It was his last journey, the same one we all eventually make. For him, the journey came just after Christmas. I'd been to see him the first week of December, and we'd managed to play a game of Monopoly, though his hands were so shaky that I had to move his little cannon around the board for him. Still, Dad's blue eyes gleamed with the hope of landing on Boardwalk.
He landed in the hospital two weeks later with pneumonia. Given his emphysema, his prognosis wasn't great. I wanted to fly down to see him, but Christmas and New Year's were in the way and our four children were coming home from college. Plus, the doctors were noncommittal. He might bounce back, they said. Let's get him into rehab. I made a reservation to fly down from Massachusetts to South Carolina the week after Christmas. Dad died the day before I arrived.
I flew down anyway, taking off from Boston in a blizzard on the last plane to have its wings de-iced for the day. I drove so fast out of the Myrtle Beach airport that a tiny, sunburned, Napoleonic cop handed me a ticket for $100.
“Do you have any idea how fast you were going?” the cop asked.
“Not fast enough,” I said.
I spent the next week helping my mother clear out Dad's closets and dresser drawers, marveling at how my father, a career Navy man who served his country during the Korean War and Vietnam, still folded his briefs and t-shirts in that tidy military way despite his palsied hands and lack of breath. The neat rows of shining shoes bothered me the most, clear evidence that Dad never went anywhere at the end. Only his slippers were scuffed.
I kept a soft flannel shirt and a few family photos. Otherwise, off it went, all of that detritus of life carted away to the Salvation Army in the mafia-sized trunk of my mother's lumbering American sedan. My last stop was at the funeral home to retrieve Dad's ashes, which weighed so much that I staggered when the funeral director handed me the brass box.
Death is seldom convenient, but for me, Dad's death has a peculiarly sharp resonance because I wrote a book about him that he never saw. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, is due out today by Harmony. To research the book required spending many hours with my father, talking about how and why he, a Navy officer, became so entranced by gerbils – “pocket kangaroos,” he liked to call them -- that he retired from the military and raised them on a grand scale. My dad was a world- renowned gerbil expert, a Gerbil Czar with nearly 9,000 gerbils housed on our 90-acre farm in Massachusetts. We kids were his first employees.
Despite what some readers might think after James Frey published his memoir-that-wasn't, A Million Little Pieces (which probably made more money because Oprah gave him such a sound scolding for faking it), most people who write memoirs are not fanciful liars, but dogged researchers. In my case, I interviewed family, friends, my father's employees, and anyone else I could get to talk to me about Dad, hoping to capture a life on the page.
At Dad's memorial service last week, our family gathered for an outdoor ceremony at a cemetery that is, literally and figuratively, on a dead end street in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Standing in this cemetery, you get no sense of the world beyond. There are no traffic sounds or children shouting, no ambulance sirens or buses honking their horns. None of that busyness of life to interfere with our contemplation of that last journey we all make, leaving behind our shoes and hats and families who love us. When the minister sang, though, a mockingbird sitting high in an oak tree above us suddenly started chattering and singing, too, louder and louder over the minister's fine soprano until we were all laughing.
“That's Dad, having the last word,” my brother said, looking up at the bird.
“I hope so,” I said.
For all I can think, as my book makes its way into the world, is this: what if I got something wrong? Dad read the book before he left for his last journey, but what if he missed something, too?
Ah, well. As the brilliant writer Jim Harrison says in his poem, “Larson's Holstein Bull” from In Search of Small Gods, “Death steals everything except our stories.” That's why it's so important to tell them as best we can.

Friday, May 15, 2009

American Idol's Lambert v.s. Allen: Good v.s. Evil?

My son, Blaise, an erudite English major at Bates College, recently caught me curled up in a chair, red wine in hand, watching American Idol. Blaise is a 21 year-old idealist taking a class in deconstructing the media, so he was quick to lecture me on the evils of falling prey to would-be Idols who are manufactured with their own little stories, just like those American Girl Dolls his sisters once loved. There's the Idol with the dead wife, the blind guy, the impoverished mother of three, etc. "Idol panders to the prurient interests of the masses," he said. "How can you stand to watch it? You have a master's degree in English, Mom!"

Exactly. With my pedigree, how can I stand NOT to watch AI? I was a reality TV show virgin until this year, when I accidentally stumbled onto one of the early American Idol audition shows while searching for a public television documentary on prison torture or plague viruses, I forget. I was after some mind expansion. Instead, I found people singing their hearts out in front of psycho judges who speak in tongues, using words like "dope" and "chops," or uttering playground insults like, "Your singing sounded like a cat being dropped off the Empire State building." I was hooked.

I've watched every show since then. With the help of my DVR, I can zip through the drearier performances, like those by Matt in the Hat, kind of like skipping some of Proust's descriptions of his bedspread. Now that we're down to the final battle between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, I've come to believe that American Idol is like great literature everywhere, offering us the classic conflict of good v.s. evil.

In this corner, Ladies and Gentlemen -- let's just call it the "right" or the "red" corner -- we have good boy Kris Allen, the cute and humble guitar picker from Arkansas who has already landed himself a Barbie trinket of a wife. He sings white boy mood music kind of like Jack Johnson, well suited to animated children's stories. He's exactly the boy you hope shows up at your front door to take your daughter to the prom.

Facing off Chris in the opposite corner -- yep, you got it, that's the LEFT or the blue corner -- we have Adam Lambert, a favorite of the judges, because hey, guess what? As Randy would say, "You can sing, dude." In fact, whether Lambert is singing Johnny Cash or Led Zeppelin, he sings like he's on fire, or maybe just his pants are smoking. He's Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger and Cher all rolled into one. Without a doubt, he should win.

But will he? Perhaps not. Remember that, in the greatest works of literature, there are unreliable narrators and multifaceted characters who are never just good or bad. For many, I expect Kris Allen represents all that is good and whole and milk-fed, right down to his lucky jeans, business major, and that weird curling tongue thing he does when he sings. Meanwhile, Adam Lambert is the sort of guy whose unrevealed (yeah, right) sexual identity has landed him on magazine covers and provoked the likes of Bill O'Reilly to try and knock some common sense into us before our poor innocent children can all start wearing black nail polish and cutting their hair in crazy ass polygons. But Adam has a big sexy body, he's from California, and he looks good in LEATHER. Scary good! Any girl (or boy) who went to the prom with him would have a night to remember.

What will America do? That's really why I'm watching. I want to know how the story ends.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Still in Love with Spock After All These Years

May 11, 2009

Still in Love with Spock After All These Years

My love affair with Spock is no passing fancy. I was starstruck at age 11, when I first watched Star Trek on TV and hid under the coffee table because I was afraid of having the salt drained from my body by an alien and being covered with red welts, just like Darnell in “The Man Trap.” I wanted to be Spock, whose blood was immune to such things. I vowed to live long and prosper, and I wore a red turtleneck every day of sixth grade because I wanted to be mistaken for a member of the Enterprise crew. (You can imagine what this did for my popularity.)

I could only do that weird split-finger Vulcan salute with my right hand and never my left, due to some genetic quirk. Despite this minor physical shortcoming, I persevered. Whenever my best friend and I played Star Trek, with our very own cardboard box Enterprise bridge and my pet gerbil as an extra crew member, she was always fearless Kirk to my rational, conflicted Spock.

Spock was the first man to whom I wrote a love letter, and in return for it I received an autographed photograph. I pressed that picture inside my favorite horse book, My Friend Flicka, for the next six years or so. (I would still have it, but my father was a Navy officer, so nothing was forever.)

I thought my lust for sexy Vulcans was gone for good, too, until I went to see the latest Star Trek movie with my youngest son, now 11, exactly the same age I was when Spock first ignited my passions. It was Mother's Day, so we saw Star Trek in a sold-out IMAX cinema north of Boston. It was a digital, full body experience far removed from the pale, flickering television of my youth. This theater had a towering screen, rumbling seats and a sound system that made me feel like the theater was being nuked the minute before the opening credits.

But I didn't think about the theater at the time. While my husband and son were entranced by the battle scenes, I had eyes only for Spock. Or should I say “Spocks”? Leonard Nimoy was the Spock of the future, a grand old man who can still do the most famous split-finger salute in the universe and say “Live long and prosper” and make you think he means it. Our present-day Spock was played by Zachary Quinto, who had to have his fingers glued because he couldn't do that funky Vulcan finger thing, either. Must be the same genetic quirk I have. (William Shatner used fishing line to perform the trick in the original series. Check out,23739,25459863-5012980,00.html)

I first noticed the actor Quinto as Sylar ( on the brain-bruising Sci Fi conundrum that is Heroes ( . He is perhaps best known as the villain who can open the craniums of his victims the way you or I might lift the lids off of yogurt containers. Could Quinto possibly pull this off, I wondered? Could he reignite my passion for all things Vulcan and make me remember why I loved Spock?

Yes, yes, yes! Quinto plays a brooding Spock with such loyalty to his human mother that he does unVulcan things like clock whatever dumb ass insults her. He has the classic arched eyebrow, the ability to easily subdue lesser men with a single shoulder pinch, and says “fascinating” with authority.

Did I care whether the Federation, with its courageous Enterprise crew, subdued this latest rebel ship of the Romulan Empire ( Not one whit. On Mother's Day, I cared only that the movie brought my first love back to me.