Saturday, July 21, 2012

The College Experience

If you are not now, or have never been, the parent of a 17-year-old, then you do not know that this summer marks the beginning of College Search Season. Lucky you. It’s a time of such importance, expense and tension for families everywhere, that I’m surprised our create-need-where it-doesn’t-exist industry hasn’t developed a line of cards, or decorations, or required gift-giving moments (“This adorable needlepointed pillow is for shedding hot, sad tears when you don’t get into your dream school!”)

Emma has been swinging wildly in her search for what the career counselors might call a Life Path. She reminds me of an old Tarzan movie, grabbing blindly at each vine in front of her, but she’s cuter, of course. First she’s veering off to rigorous academic life. Then, it’s an international focus on foreign service. Every few weeks, she starts to feel the pressure, and announces that she wants to be an elementary school teacher, or perhaps start a day care.

Finally, forced to zero in on something a little lower than the treetops, she made this pronouncement:  “Here is what I want to do: I want to learn a lot of languages. I want to do a lot of math. And I want to shoot things.”

Alrighty, then. With that goal as her guidepost, she spent a happy week at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs this June, and declared that it seemed to be an ideal life. (Unlike some of her unfortunate classmates, she neither soiled herself nor vomited during the rigorous five-day “Taste o’ Fun” in which she participated, which she took to be a good omen for future success.) 

Every now and then, she worries about this military option, and wonders if she will be missing “The College Experience.” I do, too, since I have no idea what that phrase actually means, but suspect that it involves a sickening amount of alcohol, plus classes that never start before noon. Also, date rape drugs, but that’s just the mother in me, jumping to conclusions.

We have a family friend who is attending the Air Force Academy now, and I asked him, when he was home for his three-week summer vacation (you read that right), if it drove him crazy to see his high school friends boozily stumbling their way through a “College Experience,” brains unused, bodies lethargic, but livers in full throttle.

He told me about a high school buddy who was attending a notorious party school, whose Facebook entries from Thursday through Sunday grew progressively less coherent. I opined that, upon graduation, this kid would find himself scrambling for an Assistant Manager job at the wireless phone kiosk at the mall, and that seemed to cheer the military man in him, just a bit. “Short-term pain, long-term gain,” he said with a smile, and I remembered why I’ve always loved this kid.

Having jumped the initial hurdle of finding something Emma likes to do -- at least for five days in a row -- everyone around here relaxed for a couple weeks. Then someone looked at a calendar, saw that it was almost August, and realized that we’ve got just a couple weeks left to make The Tour at all the other places where she might possibly want to matriculate. Planning commenced apace. When pressed, she narrowed her top choices to every school on the East or West Coast. She suggested a journey that would require several weeks of vacation time and a major investment in airfare and hotel rooms, not to mention frayed parental nerves.

The demand was made to “narrow it down, dammit,” so the current plan is for six days in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting Georgetown and American University, and making a side trip to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Emma and her dad will be going on college visits, then visting the Spy Museum and the Holocaust Museum. Mary Katherine and I, the homosexual men trapped in straight women’s bodies, will be enjoying what is shaping up as round-robin of the gayest places in our nation’s capitol. First stop, of course, is Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.  Then Mr. Rogers’ sweater and Julia Child’s kitchen.  Someone told Mary Katherine about “an outfit museum,” which I think is a First Lady Exhibit at the Smithsonian, but we’re still looking. If there’s an Outfit Museum anywhere in Foggy Bottom, we’re just the girls to find it.

The one thing that seems almost certain about this entire exercise is that it’s probably won't stick, anyway. I’ve been observing my friends with older kids go through this drill, of which the death march, I mean tour, is just the beginning.  As soon as all the work is done and the kid finally arrives at that “dream college,” dissatisfaction sets in before the mini-fridge is stocked with Red Bull, and the transfer process begins. One friend’s son lasted only a semester at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, because “it wasn’t in a city.” Didn’t he notice that on the tour, I wanted to ask. Actually what I wanted to ask was, DEAR JESUS IN HEAVEN, IS HE SO STUPID THAT HE DIDN’T GET HIS HEAD OUT OF HIS RECTUM LONG ENOUGH TO LOOK AROUND THE CAMPUS FOR FIVE MINUTES? Another friend’s daughter began transfer procedures with a week of arrival at her school.“She knew the first day it wasn’t for her,” my friend told me. The first day? That observation couldn’t have come during, say, I don’t know, THE FIRST TEN MINUTES OF LAST YEAR'S TOUR?

By this point my tongue is starting to hurt from the amount of biting I’m doing, so I’ve decided to prepare myself in advance for the fact that all this effort is only to pick the first school Emma will attend, the one she will end up hating immediately and transfer out of. Even though I do plan to tell her to get her head out of Textville and look around a bit, I’m not sure it will take. NOW would be a good time to decide if you hate, hate, hate a school, but I’m ready for the inevitable call in September, 2013, telling me that the Navy is too wet. Or the Air Force is too airy. Or American University is full of foreigners.  

Then, I suppose, we can start The Tour all over again.

I just hope we get to go to visit some really gay places again, and so does Mary Katherine.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Strawberry Shortcake meets Marilyn Monroe: the rise of the babytalking businessbabe

If you’ve been on a conference call anytime within the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard her. No matter where you work – a struggling nonprofit, a snappy startup or a giant conglomerate – odds are that one of your colleagues is, well, a babytalker. She’s a nice girl, of course (you’d never really think to call her a woman). Perhaps her credentials are impeccable, and her work ethic is superb, but every time this chick opens her mouth, you think she’s going to invite you to sleep over at her house, share her new pink canopy bed and do each other’s hair.

I noticed my first babytalker several years ago.  “Poor thing,” I thought as she squeaked out her highly breathy comments, “probably a glandular condition. Or too much estrogen in her drinking water.” Then these dollies began to creep up in increasingly scary numbers in many of the offices where I freelance, and I had to admit that it was a verifiable phenomenon.

Sometimes the talker is pure sweetness and pre-adolescent light, like Minnie Mouse with an Outlook account. Occasionally she adds a bit of spice to the vocal mix, and you suddenly begin to wonder if she’s taking the weekly team conference call from the high rollers’ suite at Caesar’s Palace, where she’s been escorting some Russian plutocrats on a junket – and finishing the pivot tables on that third quarter revenue analysis for the sales department, of course.

Whenever I have a conversation with a babytalker, I become hyper-aware of my own voice, which suddenly sounds suspiciously low to me. I am a female, right? Then why do I sound so competent? As soon as I hang up the phone, I have an urge to put on lipstick and a pair of high heels, just to counteract my feelings of inadequacy. But, given that I work in a home office, wearing the Kendrick Works World Headquarters uniform of shorts and t-shirt, that might scare the UPS man on his next visit.

With a helpless tone of voice, of course, can come actual helplessness, as I’ve learned to my peril. I’ve encountered more than a few babytalkers who seem very good at getting mommy and daddy – whoever happen to be the actual grownups on a project – to help little ol’ her get that nasty ol’ work finished. I ran into this recently with a fast-turn proposal I’d been asked to pull together for one of my agency clients. I’d already had a couple phone conversations with the sales guy, whom I adore. We’ve known each other forever, and we’ve got a great shorthand going. He talks fast, I listen fast, then I talk a little faster, and we can accomplish a day’s worth of work in about ten minutes.

For this project, we had to call in another staffer at the agency, one who had some special expertise, I was told. When we all got on the conference call, I began to wonder what that expertise was, and if it involved the ancient art of Terpsichore in connection with male lap regions. The conclusion of the call was that there wasn’t much she could do to help, that she really thought a big, strong girl like me probably knew a whole lot more and could use all those confusing nouns and verbs and whatchamacallits to write it all up by the deadline.

Sure, I heard myself saying, in a voice that suddenly sounded to me like Dinty Moore. I’ll be happy to do that. We hung up. My phone rang thirty seconds later.

“What was that?” the sales guy shouted in my ear. “What if we have to put her in front of our customer? She sounds like she’s reading her fifth-grade report on Why I Like Ponies! Kendrick, make this happen and help me out,” he pleaded. I felt like Wonder Woman – in baggy shorts and stained t-shirt – and sprang into action. Lumpy, Menopausal Woman to the rescue!

But men never fail to confuse me, and I have to admit I was baffled by his response. This girl was a verifiable hottie, and, knowing my pal as I do, if she and I were both in the bar of the Four Seasons Maui at the Afterglow after the Dine-Around event during some incentive trip, I know where he’d be parking his tailored suit. Not next to me – no one is looking for acerbic comments delivered by a woman whose feet are swelling up in these heels, dammit, and where’s that waiter with my Diet Coke? No, he’d be next to the purring babytalker, telling her how Mister Man would take care of everything for her, including getting her another Brandy Alexander.

And then I had a revelation of gobsmacking proportions – men can tell the difference. While they prefer the wounded sparrow, especially the big-breasted one, in any social situation, they don’t fall for that at work, or at least they don’t anymore.

That’s when I remembered Honey. This is the disguised name of the first babytalker-fatale I’d ever worked with, back when I was still hoeing and tilling in the cubicle farm. I’ll admit that I’d fallen for her too, at first, in a purely Jane-Russell-helping-Marilyn-Monroe sort of way. I’d been one of the people who interviewed her, and she was so lovely and sweet that I felt an overwhelming urge to smooth her path. I can’t imagine what the guys who interviewed were thinking, but I’m sure it wasn’t as pure as helping her learn how to sew her own clothes.

Honey made a big splash when she arrived on what we liked to call our “campus.” Since it was what was laughingly called “an open environment,” I was able to hear every word uttered by every owner of a “y” chromosome within a hundred feet, and those comments can be distilled into two words:  hubba. hubba. 

But, as the weeks passed and I got a chance to observe Honey in action, I noticed a definite chilling of the tropical heat wave she’d brought with her. Honey had a modus operandi for completing any work duty that she found too taxing.  She’d wait until about four p.m., then approach an unsuspecting male, wringing her hands, saying she just didn’t know how she’d be able to get it done. Prince Valiant would spring into action. She’d go home early, and he’d be stuck in his cube until seven, doing her work for her.

I’m not sure how many times she did this before each guy got wise, but eventually she’d worked her way through the entire office. Men who had once leaped up and checked their underarms for unsightly stains when they saw her approaching, now ran the other way. Finally one day, I overhead a conversation that I found utterly insightful into the male thought process. A new guy had started that week, and he was saying to a cube veteran, “Hey, how ‘bout that Honey? She’s beautiful!” And then the fellow, the one who’d been doing her dirty work for weeks, said the most amazing thing: “She’s not that pretty.”

Now I got it.  A pretty girl is a good girl. When someone was as manipulative and black-hearted as Honey had turned out to be, the only explanation was that she was not, in fact, beautiful.

Men, I thought. They get to the same place eventually; they just take a different road and take a lot longer to get there. Eventually, I’m supposing, they’ll get sick of the babytalk at the office and insist that it stay at the Gentlemen’s Clubs where it belongs. And perhaps the babytalkers will get the picture and go back to sounding, if not like Bea Arthur, at least a little more like grown women.

In the meantime, I predict that we’re going to be hearing a lot more breathy patter coming through on those conference calls, so brace yourselves, girls.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Past Tense? Pass. (Plus: the Three Things I Know)

Abraham Lincoln walks into the theater …
Julius Caesar is standing at the Rubicon …
A guy walks into a bar …

I am undereducated on so many topics that my stupidity springs up and slaps me across the face just about every day – whether it’s basic geography, the European financial crisis or how to fix a toilet that keeps running, I am continually confronted with the fact that there is a vast ocean of information upon which I have no grasp.

So I don’t usually take pride in the tiny body of knowledge that I seem to have mastered, which really boils down to three things:
  1. The lyrics of The Great American Songbook, including many of the verses
  2. How to parallel park a car
  3. The essential constructs of English grammar
A refusal of pride does not signify the lack of an opinion, however, and therefore I do find myself doing the old-lady-sputter-and-spew at the current trend to eliminate the past tense in spoken English. Perhaps I am just listening to too much NPR again, but I find that every moldy old historian who has a book to plug refuses to speak about their subject as if the person is no longer living. There they are, snuggled up to Audie Cornish or Guy Raz in the swank radio booth, purring into the microphone with some inanity like, “So Amelia Earhart gets into the plane …”

“Really?” I shout back at the radio, usually pulling the car out of its proper lane and coming perilously close to a collision (Good driving is not one of three things I know about. Just parking.) “Amelia Earhart is not currently doing anything, you pathetic, pluperfect poophead!” And then I gain control of my senses and remember that I haven’t correctly added anything without the aid of a calculator in thirty years, okay forty years, and I shut up.

But still, what has happened to the past tense? I totally understand this desire to bring the events of history to life, but dear God, not at the expense of a perfectly good tense, which has never done any harm to anyone. Because I am a modern American, and because we never notice a problem without assigning blame, I am pointing the finger at two villains: teenagers and elevators.

The first villain is easy enough to tag with blame, because everyone blames teenagers for everything. I live with two of them, and I do it all the time. Plus, have you ever listened to the conversation of a gaggle of teens? There is no past tense for these darlings, as they relate the highlights of their day to the fellow members of their smart set. It's all happening As We Speak: “So I’m like, no way, and he’s like way, and I’m like you are cra-cra, true dat?”

The second culprit is elevators, which are the place that elevator speeches are supposedly delivered, those little nuggets of info that are supposed to convey the essence of a scheme in the time it takes to get to the ninetieth floor (and start getting down in the dumps, a la Cole Porter, thus returning to the topic of my #1 area of useless knowledge). This elevator business started with the Hollywood pitch: “Garden State meets Vertigo meets The Royal Tenenbaums!” Now it’s something that every businessperson seems up have up their sleeve for cocktail party banter: “My company is basically Geek Squad meets Molly Maids meets the Death Star.” Notice, I say as I cue the ominous chords, the lack of a past tense.

I suppose I should stop shouting at the radio and assigning blame and just accept that the heyday of the past tense has, sadly, passed. And it’s okay. Not all languages grammaticalize tense. Emma tells me that there is no tense at all in Chinese (which makes sense if you’ve spent time with Emma or have tried to cross the street in Beijing recently). And English doesn’t even have the most tenses of all the languages, because the six-tense language Kalaw Lagaw Ya of Australia uses the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today-near future and the remote future. (And yes, I did look that up on Wikipedia, thank you very much.)

So I (present tense) accept the inevitable, admit failure and acknowledge that the past tense makes everything seem so, well, dated. And if those teens and elevator speech-makers ever want to change their tunes and come over the dark side of pluperfect past tenses, they’re welcome to join me in a world where everything has already happened, and where everyone is free to sputter at the radio and curse those trendy, present-tense historians.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Swimming in Manhattan

I didn't know it was possible for an entire city to look as if its feet hurt, but that's been my observation in New York City this week. Even before the current repent-it's-the-end-of-the-world levels of heat kicked in, everyone seemed a little, well, pinched. Maybe it wasn't painful shoes. For all I know, this could be an entire city suffering from too-tight underpants, or maybe a recent breakup, but still, it shows up on the faces of the general populace.

I might have just gotten off to an overly melancholy start, because my first day in town I went to see a show at the Museum of the City of New York that evoked my deepest sympathies for the poor schmucks who have to navigate their way in this city every day. Titled "Stories the City Tells Itself," it featured video and photography of New Yorkers at their most vulnerable -- the look on their faces just as they missed a subway train, the deep concentration as they selected items at a salad bar, or the effort displayed as they hoisted themselves up the steps of the Crosstown bus.

The most dramatic piece was the huge wall of video images of New Yorkers at the moment they reached the top of the stairs at subway exits. In those few seconds of transition, they slid off their essential New Yorker-y-ness, that "I know what I'm doing" aura that is worn like a second skin in these parts. Emerging into bright daylight at the top of the stairs, they found a moment that required them to be purely human, to look around and place themselves in the context of their surroundings. They had to ask themselves the essential question,"Where am I?" and in those moments, they looked as they must have on the first day of kindergarten. For once, they couldn't pretend not to care, and it showed on their faces.

My route home didn't do much to lighten my mood, because I walked toward downtown on the East Side, where anxiety seemed to be freefloating in the atmosphere, settling on the collars of the navy blue blazers, or lodging in that space between the legs of the women who were so thin that their thighs didn't touch. I caught more than a few of those women who had gorgeous, youthful-looking blowouts from the back, and whose faces, glimpsed at the traffic light, looked like something that had just crawled out of the Temple of Dendur down at the Met.

Working so hard to keep up appearances, to stave off age, to keep the shirt unbuttoned just so -- God, no wonder I found it exhausting just to breathe the same air as these people. They actually seemed to walk with their noses tilted up in the air. Be careful, I thought. People trip, even in the East 70s.

Once I got to Midtown, the anxiety seemed to find an outlet in agression, and I struggled to keep my place on the sidewalk, like some twenty-first century lumberjack at the 59th Street log roll. Every step forward threatened another elbow, shoulder or backpack, seeking to smack me down. It felt like a cross between a cage match and a swim meet, and I jostled to stay in my lane.

I had just read about the upcoming New York Ironman event, in which contestants start with a 2.4 mile swim in the fresh and sparkly Hudson River, in August, no less. Apparently the water is only part of the challenge for this event -- there are also the fellow contestants who kick, elbow, and hold their competitors' heads under water.

As soupy as the weather here has been, I feel like one of those Ironmen myself, especially as I navigate the crowded sidewalks. I wonder if the Ironmen have to contend with cellphoners, texters, cigarette-smokers and stroller-pushers, as I often do these days.

And since even a rube like me knows better than to stand still on the sidewalk, I dive back in, a pale-fleshed Minnesota Walleye, swimming upstream to 45th and 5th.