Monday, May 28, 2012

Nine Cigars, Nine Scotches and Plenty of Pink Silk Underwear

It’s wonderful to remember the service of our U.S. soldiers on Memorial Day, but today I’ve been thinking about the best half-American friend that the U.S. ever had – Winston Churchill.  I just finished reading another biography of him, and I loved mulling over all the stuff I already knew and finding a few tidbits I hadn’t run across before.

The author was another super-hottie boyfriend of mind, J. Rufus Frears, (see photo at left) who tossed in all sorts of juicy tidbits, such as the fact that my boy Winston drank nine scotches and smoked nine cigars each day, starting with breakfast. That doesn’t include the staggering amounts wine and champagne he had with meals, but I think it’s a nice round number for the man who stood alone against what he always sneeringly called the “Naaaahzees.”

Churchill's father was a bug-eyed, egomaniacal, syphilitic gasbag. His mother was a beautiful and narcissistic tramp, reported to have have slept with 200 men.  Neither of them seemed to have wasted much thought or effort on Winston. He was a washout at academics, and on the annual parents' day (Randolph and Jennie never came), the boys would enter the hall in order of academic achievment. Winston always walked in last, and people laughed at him.  From this miserable start came his incredible greatness, and that's just one of the reasons I love him so much.

Dr. Frears failed to mention one of my favorite bits of biographical data, which was Churchill’s penchant for wearing pink silk underwear. It’s one of those facts which you may not make much of at the time, but which will begin to color your understanding of every single event of World War II. Just knowing that the “Never Surrender” speech was delivered by a bloke wearing pink silk knickers just gives the whole thing another perspective entirely.

My other favorite Churchill story has to do with his dangerous wartime Atlantic crossings on the Queen Mary (he was always listed on the passenger manifest as "Colonel Warden”). On one particular crossing, there was a great likelihood that they’d be attacked by U-Boats. When told of this, Churchill got quite agitated – not about the need to keep himself safe, but over how he wanted his lifeboat to be equipped with a machine gun. Imagining himself stranded in the mid-Atlantic, with the wreck of the Queen Mary all around him and with the Naaaahzees circling like sharks, he didn't want to go down without a fight. That's my boy Winnie.

I never hesitate for a moment when people play the hypothetical living-or-dead dinner party game.  I would have Churchill to my right for all eternity (fortified, of course, by many naps on my part and a big ol’ jug of Diet Coke to help me stay awake). Perhaps I love him even more when I realize how impossible he’d be for our careful, coiffed and moderate times.  He was short (5' 6”) and he was fat (215 pounds). He drank. He smoked. He always told the truth. He never held a grudge. He did whatever he thought was the right thing, even when everyone else told him he was wrong, and even when it hurt his career.  He was much more brave than he ever was careful. It got him in trouble during his times; it would make him impossible in ours.

With a c.v. like that, he couldn’t get elected to the position of dogcatcher in the 21st century. but how could you not want to be represented by someone who understood what really matters in life: "We live very simply -- but with all the essentials of life well understood and provided for -- hot baths, cold champagne, new peas & old brandy."

On Memorial Day 2012, this Yank is lifting her glass of Diet Coke and saying, thanks, old boy. Well Done.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sex! Alcohol! (Or Something Like That)

Four moms in a room?  Eight opinions, all of them contradictory and at least half of them involving a significant waggle of pointed fingers. As someone who makes it a point never to use “parenting” as a verb, I do find that other women tend to keep up a steady stream of vitriol towards the, um, “momming” choices that others make. The incoming missives from every other country tell us  that we’re just plain doing it wrong (Eskimo moms knit whale blubber booties! French mothers teach their children how to debone an ortalon before preschool!) And that lady on the cover of Time magazine, giving her son a last nip of breast milk before he heads off to college and switches to beer? Seems like everyone has a quick thousand or so words they want to share about her particular mom choice.

As soon as I’d jumped into this mom gig (the job that sucks up your entire life and tosses you out like a spent shell a mere 18 years later, just like real corporate America), I realized that I was not a good fit with the other mommies. I liked my kids just fine, but I seemed to lack the requisite number of opinions. I couldn’t really work up enough passion in discussing my choices for diapering, sleeping and eating, let alone have enough energy left over to tell other moms why they were doing it wrong. I’ll let you know, from hard experience, that “whatever” is never, ever the appropriate response at a Mommy & Me session. It sends off signals of weakness that causes the other mommies to emit low, snarling growls of displeasure.

I’ve spent many years since assiduously skirting the hot-button issues, realizing that revealing any of my mom-choices would leave me open to the wolf pack. When a mommy talked about co-sleeping, I brought up the extortion racket – aka jewelry party – she was planning. When she brought up breastfeeding, I looked down, pointed and chirped, “Cute shoes!”

But it turns out that there’s no statute of limitations on telling another woman that she’s doing it all wrong, so, sixteen years after I celebrated my first Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed, I found myself at the center of an opinion maelstrom.

The mom choice I’d made seemed pretty simple:  Emma wanted to spend her junior year of high school studying in Beijing, and I said, “Sure, sounds like fun.  Just let me sell that extra kidney to fund this adventure, and you’re good to go.” On her end of things, the experience has been a great one, and she’s due home in a couple weeks with a mastery of Mandarin, a globally minded set of friends and a much broader worldview. 

On my end of things, however, the finger pointing continues.

It started before she even got out of the country. I mentioned Emma's plan to another mom and – I am not making this up – the first two words out of her mouth were “Sex! Alcohol!” I thought that perhaps she’d suddenly changed the subject and was telling me about her weekend, but it turns out that no, she was just sharing her conviction that, as soon as the plane arrived at Beijing International, those exchange students would be getting busy and getting plastered. I thought of telling her that, so far as I remembered, sex and alcohol were not the sole province of the Communist Party (much as they’d like to get exclusive rights for resale to us weak imperialists), but I just smiled and nodded, something that I found myself doing more and more in the ensuing months.

I began to realize that my experience – letting my little bird fly to her homeland – was an incredible mirror into the motivations and secret worries of all the moms around me. There was a fair contingent of open, adventurous types who saw it as great fun for Emma: “This is a life-changing experience! Good for her!” There were those who focused, positively, on how I fit into the picture: “What a great mom you are for encouraging her to do this!”

But  there was a long line of disapproving mommies queuing up behind Mrs. Sex & Alcohol. While I was on my volunteer shift at Crisis Nursery, a staff member asked about Emma while we were all riding with a herd of two-year olds in the elevator. In that tiny space, I got two immediate and emotional reactions – one staffer got all misty-eyed at the thought of Emma's opportunity, and the other one practically shouted, “No way! No way would I ever let my kids get that far away from me!” 

During a pause in a customer lunch, I brought up Emma’s impending trip, and the woman I was with visibly started, asking quite seriously, “Does our government even allow that?  Because of, you know –" and here she lowered her voice and looked furtively around the company cafeteria to whisper  – “communism.” She seemed convinced that I was in cahoots with Obama, that Kenyan, to arrange these godless shenanigans.

After this steady drip of other people’s opinions had soaked me to the skin, I found that I could begin to ignore it, and even have a little fun. Sometimes I’d bring up the topic just to see what the reaction would be. It was often unpredictable and usually very interesting, and I found big bundles of mom-emotion lurking behind the most mild-mannered faces.

I’ll need to keep that attitude in mind, because one of the things Emma is doing this summer is attending a recruitment camp at the Air Force Academy, with a thought to applying there for college. In the highly pc circles in which I move, there isn’t a statement more guaranteed to freeze faces with displeasure than the words “Military Academy.”

In fact, one brilliant friend has already unfurled her Mom Flag and declared hotly, “People in the military get killed, you know!”

True, but at least they aren’t having Sex & Alcohol, I wanted to tell her. Every mom knows that those are just for exchange students, not soldiers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

On Strike

Agreeableness can only take you so far, and sometimes being a good girl is a bad idea. It’s the person who sits down, holds tight and refuses to budge, the one who says “no more,” who usually ends up living a life that always seems to have the extra sprinkles on top.

Mary Katherine is a great example of a good girl who goes bad when necessary. She perfected the idea of the General Strike several years ago, when we were visiting Disney World, which is the ultimate “Fun, Dammit” location. Everyone you look, parents are beating hot, crumpled, weeping children, shouting that it’s time for fun, dammit, because they already bought the 24-hour-Hopper-Pooper ticket and no one is leaving until they squeeze every last morsel of activity from it. The whole place feels less like an amusement park than a hostage situation.

Turns out Mary Katherine, age five, thought so, too. After two days of humid trudging in the Park That Won’t Let You Go Home Before Midnight, Day Three dawned, and I tried to rouse her. Consulting my list, I informed her that we had several super-magical rides & adventures to tick off our Required Fun Chores before lunch. Calmly and sweetly, she informed me that she wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m staying in this bed,” she said. “I’m going to color in my color book and watch movies and not leave the hotel.” I gasped. As a lifelong rules follower, I could only stand back and admire this tyke. She was standing up to the Disney Industrial Complex. I did everything but applaud. And then I slid into bed with her and fired up the DVD player.

I’ve always found that moment to be a touchstone for me, a time I can return to as an example that you don’t have to be big or loud or mean to get what you want. You just have to be very, very sure. I spend most of my days making sure that everyone else has enough napkins for their Life Banquet, but every now and then, I try to employ a bit of the Mary Katherine Method in my own world.

My most recent example happened in Beijing. There were four of us following Emma around like baby ducks, confident that she knew what she was doing, since that’s what she kept telling us. Most of the time, things went well, but it turned out that she was a Mamma Duck who liked adrenaline a little bit too much for anyone’s good. The first day we left our hotel, she marched us across the traffic-signal-free equivalent of a 10-lane highway, one where cars were making rapid, screeching turns into our oncoming path. 

It was nerve-wracking, she admitted when I protested from the other side, but it was just The Way Things Are in China. By Day Two, I was beginning to break into a cold sweat the minute I was in the hotel lobby, just imagining the terror outside. The next day, I announced, “I am not going to cross that street again. I suggest we try turning in the other direction when we leave the hotel and see if there is a traffic light somewhere in this city so that we can cross more calmly.” 

Emma scoffed and told me that I wasn’t being appropriately Chinese. “If I have to spend the rest of this trip in the hotel, I will,” I said, “but I am not crossing that street, in that spot, again.” I had learned the secret from Mary Katherine – know exactly what you need and be very, very sure.

When we left the hotel the next morning, Emma avoided the speedway and allowed us to turn left. Within two blocks, we  found an underground pedestrian throughway that led directly to our subway stop. Emma shrugged. I could tell that it didn’t seem like as much fun, and that she thought I was soft and weak. Too bad, I thought, as I reached for Mary Katherine’s hand in the stinky and safe tunnel. I had finally learned how to go on strike, and I was feeling proud of myself.

I thought back to that day with Mary Katherine at Disney World.  I had asked her if she wanted to have breakfast and she’d warily said, “If I have to take a shuttle bus to breakfast,  I’m not hungry.” We’d walked -- on too-wide paths, past overly artificial lagoons, but still. We had lingered over waffles and a Barbie coloring book, just laughing. I’d bought her an enormous and impractical lollipop in the gift shop and told her it was her breakfast dessert. We’d watched more television, lolled in the pool and napped through a thunderstorm. It was the day she wanted to have, and she wasn’t afraid to insist that she be allowed to have it. 

It's a lesson I'm still learning. But every now and then, I have enough strength to remember that what seems inevitable, often isn't. And it just takes one "no" -- a very, very sure "no" -- to shut it down and start over.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


“Of course we can write on it; that’s why Sharpies were invented,” I said. Maren’s face lit up. Even when you’re a very good girl, there’s no denying the universal appeal of naughtiness, and here I was, poised with a juicy marker to scribble on the ketchup bottle. Her mother had never told her not to write on ketchup bottles with markers, I could almost hear her thinking, but something that much fun just had to wrong.

My favorite kindergartener and I had been spending the afternoon together, and instead of doing dumb grown-up things like shopping, complaining about our lives and whining about our health, we’d been using the doctor kit to give pretend shots to the Chihuahua, dressing up a fleet of naked Barbies and reading Arthur books to each other. Now, instead of spending an overpriced happy hour in a crowded bar, we were sitting in the kitchen, preparing to tuck into a feast of pigs in a blanket, applesauce and milk. But when I opened a new bottle of ketchup, it seemed to have collected some pent-up energy, shooting all the way across Maren’s plate and landing right at the rim.

So I got out a pen and wrote all over the ketchup bottle. “Squirts Really Far,” I wrote. “Good for Food Fights.” The delicious evil inherent in even thinking about a food fight made her clap her hands together.

They say never to do anything with a child that you don’t want to keep repeating every day for a year, but I’d started this little arts and craft session, so I was happy to oblige when she asked for seconds of applesauce and then wanted to write on that label, too. I provided testimonials (“Tastes good.” – Maren) and some serving suggestions (“Eat two helpings!”) The defaced bottles were the first things Maren wanted to show her Mom when she was picked up, and I could tell that every foodstuff in their household would soon be getting the Sharpie treatment, possibly including bananas.

Although my children would be happy to offer long testimonies on my mediocrities as a mother, the truth is that I’m really saving myself for grandmotherhood. I love to taunt them with tales of how I’ll feed their kids potato chips for breakfast and let them watch unlimited brain-rotting television. “You can’t do that!” they usually shriek, and I just chuckle darkly. I’ve learned just a couple things about children, and one is that they love, love, love naughtiness – not necessarily being naughty themselves, but watching others cross the line.

I remember reading aloud the Betsy-Tacy series to Mary Katherine a few years ago. Even writing more than seventy years ago, that Maude Hart Lovelace knew the kind of naughtiness that would thrill kids. I got to the point where I could tell how great the evil was by how still Mary Katherine would become, as if she was afraid to miss a word. When the girls pretended they were beggars, she did not move for long, long moments. And the night when I read about how the girls cut each other’s hair, I looked up to discover that Emma had crept into the room and was sitting on the edge of the bed. This naughtiness was too good to miss.

Mary has always loved a good villain, and she liked to skirt right up to the edge of badness in her day. After seeing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever one year, she spent the next several months “playing Hurdman.” She would become a member of that play’s rabble-rousing family, and I would be expected to register shock and horror at her naughtiness. “The Hurdmans have just covered the cat with peanut butter!” I would gasp, and she would run around the house for a while, and then inform me that she’d just burned down the school. “Oh, Hurdmans!” I would wail, and her angelic face would light with glee.

Why is evil more fun than goodness? I’m sure I wrote a paper or two about it in grad school, and I’m sorry to report that I think Paradise Lost was involved in at least one of them. These days, though, I’m keeping it simple.  Make a kid laugh and figure out a new way to kill time that seems naughty, but is really harmless. That’s what I call a good day.