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.