Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sparkle, Mary Katherine, Sparkle

Thank God for mandatory public education. Without it, my kids would have to be home schooled, and by me, which is a scary thought. My knowledge tends to run very deep in a few frivolous areas, and quite shallow in the ones that count (fractions).

Left to my own devices, I’d educate my kids on stylistic differences in the work of Richard Rodgers when he was working with Hart vs. Hammerstein, but I’d probably leave out stuff that teachers tend to care about. Hey, I’d say, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” is way more fun.

Even though she has been forced to go to a so-called regular school for eight years, I have done my best to provide Mary Katherine, the budding thespian, with a bit of curriculum reinforcement on the stuff that really matters. With this goal, I’ve occasionally held “mandatory movie nights” (usually when Emma, who fears black and white, is not home).

Was I wrong to screen “All About Eve” when she was nine? Too late now, and she does a killer Margo Channing impersonation, complete with fake cigarette and cocktail. Likewise, she’s been forced to watch “Casablanca” (And “Play it Again, Sam” for reference), “Philadelphia Story,” and other lesser films, all with the goal of building up her knowledge of what’s vital to me and arcane at best to people who can add and subtract.

This weekend, I had occasion to wonder if my Classics Curriculum was perhaps a bit limited. My pal Joel came to town, and, browsing at a garage sale the day of his arrival, I found a great fifty-cent treasure – a VHS copy of “Valley of the Dolls.” It’s for happy circumstances such there is still a VCR in the house.

Joel was delighted with his gift and immediately began spouting lines: “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember?” and “They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope.”

Well, then.

We watched the movie together that night, and, while its charms were lost on everyone else, Mary Katherine understood right away. Who needs a classic of script and cinematography when you can have Patty Duke spouting “SPARKLE, Neely, SPARKLE!”

Mary Katherine and Joel reveled in the movie’s badness. She learned the important “so bad it’s good” lesson from our visiting professor, God bless him. Monday morning, dressed in her uniform and heading off to school, she turned back to me with a wicked grin on her face and declared, “I want a doll! I want a doll!”

I can’t wait to see where this lesson shows up on her transcript.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Buying Groceries

When I was growing up, my family could have won a contest for Best Use of Euphemism in a Suburban Setting, had there been such an award. If a sensitive topic couldn’t be ignored completely, there was a strange set of Kendrick-only vocabulary words with which it could be dealt. My sister, for example, was in her first semester of nursing school before she learned that the correct anatomical terms were not “front bottom” and “back bottom.”

My own parenting goal has been to remain euphemism-free as much as possible, but it often gets me into trouble. A few years ago, for example, I was chaperone for a cabin of middle-school girls who were members of the youth symphony. As they were settling in for the night, gathered at the end of my bunk (it wasn’t my magnetic personality; it’s where the chocolate chip cookies were), their talk turned to boys and dating. One of girls said, “I heard it’s illegal to go on a date with a seventeen year old.” They turned to me. I glanced up from whatever I was reading and said offhandedly, “No, dear, it’s just illegal to have sex with him.” Talk about a way to make kids get quiet. The cabin was stone cold silent, and more than a few mouths were gaping open. The question-asker turned to Emma, awed, and asked, “Is she always like that?” indicating that my frankness was way-cool. “Yeah, she’s pretty much always the same,” Emma sighed, weary and miserable. Sexual frankness may be desired in a cabin chaperone, but it’s a trait to be avoided in a mother.

One day this summer, though, I fell prey to euphemising, if that’s a verb. And I not only initiated the euphemistic use, I invented the new term. Our family, I think, will never be the same. Here’s how it started -- I was entertaining one of my best friends, Maren Woodhouse, for the afternoon. Maren is what I would describe as the exact perfect age for a human – four and a half. She’s old enough to put on her own shoes, but young enough to have thus far avoided the demoralizing experiences that will be served up to her for the next 16 or so years in school.

Maren was at the kitchen counter, enjoying a frozen Gogurt, when Emma and Mary Katherine wandered in. Emma started talking about the foreign exchange student she was hoping we could get, and she mentioned once more how much fun it would be to get a boy and finally have a brother (significant look at Mary Katherine). I told her that I’d had a frank conversation with a family friend on that topic just yesterday, and that he had expressed astonishment that I’d allow a boy in the house under those circumstances. “They’ll be having sex all the time!” he told me. “Really?” I had asked, surprised. I had honestly thought that Emma was more interested in a basketball-playing buddy than a sex partner, but I thought I ought to let her know the word on the street and get her reaction.

“He Thinks I’m Going to Be HAVING SEX?!” she shrieked. “Having sex in the basement? In my room? Having sex with a foreign boy? Having sex?!”

At this point in the conversation, my attention turned to the little Gogurt-eater at my elbow. I have had occasion to witness her word-for-word reenactment of conversations she found interesting, and I didn’t think her mom would appreciate this particular line of dialogue turning up at the Woodhouse dinner table that evening. But I hadn’t seen Emma much over the summer (my hours being 5 a.m. – 9 p.m., hers being 1 p.m.– 3 a.m.), and I thought we ought to talk about this subject. So I fell prey to euphemism.

“For the continued purposes of this conversation,” I said, nodding significantly toward Maren, “let’s say, um …” I floundered for the right verb, then hit upon it. “Let’s say ‘buying groceries’ to describe this activity our friend thinks you will engage in with the exchange student.”

Emma picked up the phrase without a stumble and continued her rant. “If he thinks I’ll just haul off and buy groceries with some guy just because he’s in the same house, he’s cracked,” she went on. “I am not a grocery buying kind of girl. And I could go off and buy groceries anywhere, not just be so lazy as to buy groceries with my exchange brother.”

Maren kept working on her Gogurt.

Emma went on. “And what if we bought groceries and then I decided that I hated him? I’d be stuck here with him til June, and maybe he’d want to buy groceries and I wouldn’t. Ick.”

Mary Katherine got into the spirit of the thing. “What about double coupon days?” she deadpanned. “And recyclable bags?”

She and Emma laughed so hard they cried, and Mary rolled around on the floor a bit, which is a pretty normal occurrence that Maren studiously ignored.

“I’m done with my Gogurt,” my friend announced, “and I want to play with the Barbies.”

Since that day, my girls have trotted out “buying groceries” as the accepted description for all manner of sexual relations. Soon, I’m sure, they’ll embellish the euphemism with even more detail, including side-trip definitions for a quick trip to the market, or Sample Saturdays. I blush to consider the possibilities, but that might make them happier than anything. It isn’t easy to get their crazy old mother to blush.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Act Your Age

You could never say I was a girl who loved math (hardly), but there was one formula I always found fascinating – dogs age seven years for every one human year. I pondered this handy math fact quite a bit in my youth, considering the method by which all the dogs around me were racing ahead to grownupness, while I was still stuck as a little kid.

There weren’t any dogs in my house (mom and dad seemed to believe that caring for an animal would cut into all that precious time needed for addictive behaviors and bitter recriminations), so I amused myself by making calculations for the few dogs with whom I was acquainted – Tag the beagle, Tammy the pekinese and Tequila, the frightening mutt with one blue eye, one brown eye, and not a lot of hair, who lived in a house with nine kids. Even if he was a sophisticated 21 while I was just eight, I knew that Tequila had a worse lot in life than I did.

Like most of the things I was certain of in my childhood, this one turned out to be wrong. The actual formula, I am now told by reliable sources, is 10.5 dog years per human year for the first two years, then four dog years per human year for each year after that.

And that, my fellow liberal arts majors, is just too damn much math for me.

I’ve been thinking about chronological age quite a bit lately, since I’ve been spending time with people whose age is wildly different from my own. It’s exhilarating and also a bit unnerving. I understand that I was a born 40-year-old, and that my twitchy ways, which seemed very strange back in fourth grade, really hit their stride about 1998.

The great chronological disparity in the clan belongs to Mary Katherine. She arrived with degree of emotional maturity that pegs her at about 80 years old. Yet, for a great portion of her early years, Mary Katherine was content to live in perpetual slow mo. She never wanted to hurry up to the next developmental stage, and she didn’t care who knew it. “Don’t you want to do this, like all the big girls do?” I would ask about toilet training or giving up the high chair or whatever developmental next step on which I was currently fixated. She’d shoot me a pitying look and say, “No, not really.”

Then, this summer, little kid Mary Katherine became 23 overnight, bursting to move on-grow up-get started. The fact that she’s 12 is a major bummer to her at the moment, and I can only sympathize.

Her sister’s is an easy age to calculate. Emma was born 25, she still is 25, and I suspect she’ll be 25 when all her teeth fall out and she’s toddling about on a walker with tennis balls on the front legs. In Emma’s picture of the world, she has finished all the school she needs, has a great house on the beach, and holds down an incredibly lucrative job that involves handcuffing perps and saving the world. She is always driving down the coast in her convertible, her long hair flying back in the wind and remaining fabulously untangled. Being only 15 conflicts with this vision, just a bit. If there were a chance to leap herself forward, even one involving risky time machines or untested serums, she’d jump at the chance.

The new dog, Boomer, is about two, according to the shelter, and he is one person in the house who is doing a great job of acting his age, which is that of a teenaged boy. Only an adolescent could hoover up two-and-a-half-dozen cupcakes off the kitchen counter, with wrappers, and show such little regret, even on the, um, back end. Look long enough at his face and you can almost hear him saying, “Dude. That was sweeeeet.”

I think back to my envy of the mature 21-, 28-, and 35-year-old dogs of my youth. Why did I think it was so great that they were getting older faster than I was? They were just hurtling themselves that much more quickly toward the Final Appointment at the vet, or, in Tequila’s case, a one-way encounter with the Peavely Dairy truck. Like all kids, except Mary Katherine, I was in a hurry to grow up, and I was appreciative of those who’d tricked the system to do it faster.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be eight again, and I really still think that poor Tequila, from the family of nine children, earned himself a special golden doghouse in heaven. But I wish I had appreciated, back then, that there is no formula for time passing. Some years do go slowly. Some, the good ones, fly by. And sometimes, in retrospect, even the awfulest moments gain a golden haze, like the closeup shots in a Barbra Streisand movie.

In the meantime, I’m refusing to calculate Boomer’s age with the newfangled dog year formula. Besides the fact that it involves those pesky decimal points that always trip me up, I just don’t want to know. He’ll live while he’s alive, and then he won’t. Me, too, come to think of it. I just hope that I fill up some of those empty spaces in the years with something worthwhile. And there isn’t a math formula in the world that can help me do that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Musical Perversity in Manhattan (with apologies to Mr. Mamet)

Last year, the highlight of my birthday celebration was when I got the oil in my Beetle changed at the Valvoline on 58th and Lyndale Avenue. (To answer your question, yes, I felt very sorry for myself). This year, the highlight was an evening of rapturous, transcendent splendor, or as close as you can get to such a concept in Greenwich Village. For this dramatic change in my annual fortunes, I have my good friend Virginia to thank.

On the cozy island of Manhattan, I’d imagine that there are bars which cater to every sort of decadence and perversity, including some that a sheltered Minneapolitan like me can’t even begin to imagine. Last Thursday night, it was my great good fortune to find a bar which catered to mine. Virginia has been telling me for years about Marie’s Crisis, a dank, dark, low-ceiling-ed slice of heaven, right there on Grove Street. In addition to absorbing her tales of a place that seemed like Oz, I’d also read Marc Acito’s take on a very similar place, in “How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater.”

Marie’s Crisis is a watering hole that caters to the sort of people who write bathroom graffiti about Julie Andrews (see below; it’s true). On one magical visit, Virginia told me that she realized she was standing next to (and singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” along with) Cheyenne Jackson, so she bought him a gin and tonic. But I digress, a Bway Queens are wont to do.

On the night we went, there were no stars in attendance, just people who prided themselves on knowing every part to every musical ever written, including whether the introductory chorus required an “oooh” or an “aaah,” and how many parts of harmony. The crowd was utterly diverse and, of course, completely unified. At one end of the bar, a big black lady had a voice so deep and low that I felt my chest rumble when she sang. Behind me, there was a boy whose hips signaled that he couldn’t be straight if his rent money depended on it. He swiveled happily to “La Vie Boheme,” performing a well-remembered choreography with his pal, apparently from their days in the chorus. “Now we cross!” he urged, and the two locked arms and grapevined stage left as if they were at the Wintergarden. At the other end of the bar sat an utterly unremarkable looking guy, one for whom the word “nebbish” was invented. Yet, he delivered a crisp, deeply projecting take on every tune. Hearing the remorse he brought to the simple line “I was happy” in “At the Ballet” was a highlight of my evening, if not my year.

Most people in bars are utterly distractable, while this crowd delivered laser-like concentration to the piano player and the music. And, while I suppose one hears lots of guffaws and sees plenty of fake smiles in a non-pervert bar, I could not recall, as I looked around the dim room, ever spending bar-time with people who seemed to be so deeply at peace, and so full of joy. There are precious few believers in the world, the ones who know that evenings really can be enchanted, that every mountain can most certainly be climbed, and that we can all be gayer than laughter. When we have a chance to sing together, it looks, and sounds like, the sort of church I could happily attend.

Thanks, Virginia. That was, truly, the best birthday ever.