Monday, February 28, 2011

Frankly & Absolutely

I must be listening to the radio too much, because NPR-speak is starting to make me twitch. Since I make a living putting words together in what I hope to be a pleasing and logical way, I find that I resent all the filler that keep getting stuffed in the sausage of conversation. Say what you mean, I want to shout at the radio, and, while you’re at it, stop starting every sentence with “Well.” (I don’t actually shout at the radio, but I already have long talks with myself in the grocery store, so it’s probably only a matter of time). 

It’s getting to the point where I prefer the “umm-ers” to the people who seem to be under the evil influence of a computer speech generator that randomly spews out the same 100 words all day long. At least the ummers, desperate as they are to make a sound, any sound, aren’t pretending that there’s any meaning behind what they are spewing. But the characters who begin their response to every caller with “That’s a great question!” are wearing thin.  Just once I’d like to hear someone say, “That’s a stupid question. Why are you asking me that? I refuse to answer, you butthead.” Guess that will happen when NPR starts covering tractor pulls, but still.

In addition to filler, I’m starting to develop an allergic reaction to words that actually mean the opposite of what is said. Those used to be called lies, but I guess they’re called ultra-truths now. My two biggest nemeses are that terrible twosome, Frankly and Absolutely. I’ve observed that anyone who starts a sentence with “Frankly” has no intention of telling the god’s honest truth, and is more likely to be full of beans than to be frank.

Also, I simply must ask, when did “yes” get a demotion?  It used to be a perfectly good word, as plain and humble as as “you betcha.” Now “yes” isn’t good enough anymore; it’s come to seem pale and vapid next to its souped-up-on-steroid s cousin, “absolutely.”  If I ask you a question and you answer “absolutely,” I doubt your motives, your intentions and your IQ. I say it frankly, and I’m absolutely sure. Now let me go back to shouting at the radio.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teenage Dream

They cost just two-and-a-half cents apiece (“Give me a nickel and then I’m packing up,” said the weary garage saler), but Clive and Patty were definitely one of the better purchases of my lifetime. Their ratio of joy-delivered-to-amount-invested far exceeds that of more luxurious pleasures. Who needs Big Stuff when you can own a couple bits of small, cheap plastic that make you smile?

The duo (pictured above) are clearly ‘60s era cake decorations. But, beyond that, their life is a mystery.  How old was the person celebrating the big day? Was it for a brand-new teen or a late-blooming eighteen-year-old? Were they used many times, for all the members of a large family, or did they only hear that off-key version of Happy Birthday and feel the thrilling flame of the candles, just once in their little plastic lives? Whatever their backstory, Clive and Patty aren’t talking.

They are emblems of the entry into adolescence, in the way that long-ago admen saw that age to be. Thus, they are depicted lounging in positions of exaggerated repose, as if the sudden surge of hormones has dissolved their spinal columns. They prop themselves on books, but of course the schoolwork is ignored for the greater thrill of the hottest piece of high-tech equipment – telephones with extra-long cords. Looking at them, I can almost hear the opening song from Bye Bye Birdie:
Hi, Nancy!
Hi, Helen!
What's the story, morning glory?
What's tale, nightingale?
Tell me quick about Hugo and Kim!

Nancy and Helen, what a pair of cutups. They’re probably in a nursing home now, drool dribbling onto their hospital gowns, but they sure loved to give each other a jingle and gab on the horn, back in the day. And remember those little glass bottles of Coke, Helen? Yes, Nancy, and also – record players! 

I’ve been thinking about teenagers lately because, as of Monday, I share living space with three of them. After years of obfuscation, upselling and bare-faced lying about her age, Mary Katherine finally turned 13; Emma reached the 16-year-old milestone the next day. Angela, our elder stateswoman, is exactly 16½ today.  

Everyone I know has an opinion about teenagers. I suspect that the very people who were once the absolute worst examples of “these kids today” are the ones who seem most incensed. It’s not a new story (Socrates said in 400 BC that “the children of today are tyrants.”) Still, I wonder if it’s true that the ones who acted up the most are the ones who are freaking out the loudest now.

I’ve watched several acquaintances get utterly gobsmacked when their little darlings hit that certain age. What’s funniest is when the person complaining about the behavior actually exhibits it. A mom will sarcastically decry teen sarcasm and eyerolling by sarcastically declaring, “And I LOVE the eye rolling,” while, at the same time, rolling her eyes. Hmmm.

For the moment, I’m observing this hysteria from a distant shore. Yes, I entered motherhood knowing I’d be adopting an adorable Chinese baby, but, unlike some of my pals, I think I did understand that she wouldn’t be four months old forever. Not to be all Stephen Covey here, but I began with the end in mind. Children grow up. They become teenagers. They leave. You live for a while more. Then you die. That’s pretty much the trajectory, and all the eyerolling in the world won’t stop it.

I’ve been known to publicly state that the absolute ideal age for a human being is four-and-a-half, especially the summer before kindergarten. If I could arrange for an endless stream of kids that age to drop by now and then, to bake cookies with me and mess around with watercolor paints, I’d be very happy. Also, I’d prefer some who still take naps, but that’s quibbling.

Much as I love an unspoiled type, I also enjoy teenagers. Everything is extreme, even dumb stuff like boredom, or sleep. And everything is possible, which is alternately terrifying and thrilling, for all of us. Perhaps it’s true that the worst offenders from the past are the strictest parents of today. I spent my teen years watching television and going to the library (yes, it was just as pathetic as it sounds, now that you mention it), so I can’t really imagine the Bruegelian bacchanals that my parent chums continually conjure up. 

And please, shut up about the texting, I want to tell my friends. You might as well say “davenport” and “icebox” and talk about the great mileage you got on your Model T. You are old. They are young. They have shinier toys than you did at that age, but you don’t have to act like their toys are from Satan. You’re just jealous that YOU couldn’t text in American Civics class, so clam up already.

These days, I’m not rolling my eyes and sarcastically saying, “I LOVE having three teenagers in the house.” I’m just saying it, and I mean it. Of course their adolescence won’t be like Clive and Patty’s, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. (What is the proper decoration for a teen-theme birthday cake these days? A giant thumb?) But they’ve made it this far, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’d be the first to tell you about my long list of flaws as a mother, but I feel pretty darn proud that I got them to this point without driving away with their carseat on the roof of my Honda, or letting them suffocate on the dry cleaning bag. Hurray for me, and for their keenly honed survival skills.

They’re here. They’re alive. And they’re teenagers. No eyerolling required.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturday Night Not-So-Live

Award show season is in full swing at our house. For some people, that might mean an uptick in appearance of expensively dressed people crying in front of acrylic podia, glimpsed for an instant during nightly remote flipthroughs. Here, it means printed ballots, wagers, fashion analysis and much – much -- sideline commentary. (To quote my pal Joel during a recent visit, “Don’t you girls ever stop chattering and just watch the televison?”)

The answer, Joel?  Not so much. We prefer to misconstrue, gossip, ponder and generally pay as little attention as possible. There is a slightly increased focus during the Miss America pageant, since actual cash money is riding on that one. The crowd at our house was almost universally positive that the winner would be Miss Arkansas, a yodeling ventriloquist (you read it right the first time) who seemed unstoppable. She was stopped, it turned out, by a heavenward pointing 17-year-old from Nebraska, and we losers tore up our ballots in disbelief, roaring our terrible roars and gnashing our terrible teeth. Except for one of us. In a scenario we’ve seen played out at every raffle and jelly-bean-counting contest for the past 15 years, Emma, it turned out, was the only person who had guessed correctly, and she walked away with a crisp fiver and bragging rights that will last until January two thousand and twelve.

An awards show evening is not an orderly affair in these parts. Confusion tends to reign supreme, as at least half of anyone gathered has no idea of what is being broadcast at any given time. Adults are not immune to this phenomenon, and are, perhaps, the worst offenders. At least I am. During the Golden Globes, I glanced up briefly from my newspaper and saw someone I decided was “the other Asian” from Glee. I indicated as such, pleased that a minor player got to present a big award on stage. The “nos” from the crowd led me to gasp, “The kid who plays Other Asian isn’t really Asian?” “He’s not that guy!” they shouted back. Another pal, closer to the television and with vastly better eyesight, started it all up again by saying of the young man up on the screen, “Wait, this guy doesn’t look Asian; are you sure?” I went back to my newspaper, confused.

And so it goes.

Tonight is the Grammy Awards Ceremony, and we’ll follow the same routine we’ve held to for some time now – taping of all the red carpet preshows, engaging in much dawdling to gather everyone in the living room (“Wait!  I need more Fresca!”) and a planned hour-or-so delay so that we can speed through commercials and boring people (boredom being determined by the vocal majority, usually defined as any man other than a certified hottie, and anyone over 30).

Hanging over our heads is the knowledge that if we move too swiftly through the dreck, churning the white Tivo triangle along the green bar of captured programming, we will eventually hit the hardest moment of the evening – when we lose the ability to escape from real time and are forced to sit through the broadcast like all the other chumps in that auditorium in LA in the middle of the afternoon. It’s like being torn out of the VIP Lounge and dumped in the Wal-Mart parking lot. The evening deflates quickly once we cross the reality line, and no one seems to care as much about the awards, the outfits or the backstories. People (me first; it’s in my contract) drift up to bed, and it’s rare that we're around to witness the big award of the night, whatever that is. 

We are, it turns out, much happier in the fast forward mode; none of us cope gracefully with the heavy pull of real-time. And I still can’t figure out if Mike Chang really is Asian.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Betty, the Oracle of Minnehaha Creek

Emma has been reading the Oedipus cycle in English class, so of course that’s the first thing I thought of when I found a dead mouse in my boot on Sunday morning. Shaking it upside down and observing the lifeless little body fall onto the kitchen floor, I knew right away who was responsible. That Delphic Oracle had nothing on Betty the cat when it comes to creepy omens that portend tragedy.

Granted, the ancient Greek lass was probably more impartial then Betty. I’ve never read anything to indicate that Pythia harbored a grudge against Laius and Jocasta, but I know for certain that Betty is miffed with me. In her defense, she’s had a hard year. Her sister, Veronica, was hit by a car; then her Golden Retriever beloved, Hoover, died. To torment her further, we brought in a teenaged rescue hound with a small brain and a large hunting instinct – Betty, meet Boomer – no, don’t run away and squirt nervous poop all over the living room; he’s really very sweet … to us

Betty now lives in exile in the basement, eavesdropping on our exchange student’s Skypes to Rome and plotting her revenge.

So maybe it wasn’t an omen after all, but feline revenge. Still, it was unsettling. When my toes stretched into my Sorel and found something squishy, I knew, given my luck, that it wasn’t a crumbled $100 bill or a cashmere ascot. After shaking out the mouse and dispatching with it, I briefly toyed with the idea of returning to bed and writing the day off as a total loss. But there were miles to go, blah blah blah, so I soldiered on.

That afternoon, Emma and I had one of those brief overlaps of conscious time, like a real-live Venn chart on the intersection of grownup and teenaged wakefulness. I was returning home from my shift at the Crisis Nursery, covered in baby drool, possibly harboring an exposure to pink eye, but satisfied. She was just waking up, looking dewy and refreshed. My yoga class wouldn't start for an hour, and she needed to get her homework done. I prepared a healthful pre-yoga tonic (three-day-old coffee, tepid) and pulled up the chair next to hers. 

She had an essay assignment on Oedipus the King, so we talked about the nature of fate, inevitability and struggle. If the parents had ignored the Oracle and kept their son, would it all still have happened as had been foretold? Or was it the desire to escape that had led to the terrible consequences? I talked and she took notes, amazed that a person who consistently confuses her daughters’ names with those of the household pets could actually produce serviceable prose. It’s the only skill I picked up from 18 years of formal education, I told her – the ability to read something, determine its meaning and develop a credible analysis. Compared to knowing how to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, it’s not much. But, along with an ability to parallel park, it’s all I’ve really got going for me, so I’ve decided to have high self esteem about it.

The day moved on from there, remarkable only in its ordinariness. As I was falling asleep, I remembered the omen/dead rodent that had started my day. And I realized that Betty wasn’t much of an Oracle after all. I’d been assigned a quiet, sleepy baby at the nursery that morning. My yoga class had been restorative for my dried-out bones. And I’d had a chance to sit and talk with my daughter about something other than volleyball schedules and rides to the mall. 

As Freud might say, sometimes a dead mouse is just a dead mouse.

To be safe, though, I shared some tuna fish from my lunch with Betty the next day. Oracles always appreciate a little extra protein, I’ve heard.