Saturday, February 28, 2009

I am attracted to teenage boys....

I can't help it. Whenever I see a small knot of adolescent males gathered on the street, my eyes are drawn magnetically to their budding acne, gangly legs, sprouting and totally incongruous face hair, and voices that are stuck in a barren land, somewhere between alto and base. A year ago I would have walked right by them, without a glance. They would have been as transparent as the dogs being walked around me, or the strollers, or young couples, arm in arm, experiencing the first raptures of young love -- I always find this sight especially invisible, ever since Cupid's blunted arrow led to the very reason for all of this. I realize that the things that cause a second, or third glance, and still do, are those that relate to my own, self-serving interests. I'm guessing it's all very Darwinian, intended to keep us focused firmly on the most important things in our life.

Now that a thirteen and fifteen-year old actually reside in my apartment -- which is hard to believe -- and are eating me out of house and home and challenging my debate skills on the hour, my teen radar is on high alert. It's all I notice when I go out. Teens, skulking around, smoking, looking shift, walking in groups of fifty down Broadway, secure en masse but petrified alone.

Same deal when the kids were tiny -- unlike my single years when the mere sight of an infant had me running headlong in the opposite direction -- once I became a mother, I was instantly attracted to anyone in the same boat, which I would describe as fairly desperate at the time, given the overall amount of colic my kids brought with them into the world. Back then, anyone struggling with a stroller, or carrying a baby became my peer group, someone to sympathize with and relate to, and on through the ages as the babies grew into kids and developed their unique personalities.

With each milestone, the past became another country, so to speak, so that I have become somewhat intolerant of kids younger than third grade, and appear to struggle with latent hostility towards new mothers -- particularly the happy ones. Six of them trooped into a restaurant yesterday, in single file, each carrying a baby in a Snugli, looking very proud. As soon as the squawking began a few minutes later, I became a crochety old diddy, raising eyebrows and frowning at the invasion. Perhaps it was the memory that I could never get near a restaurant when my kids were babies, given their inability to sit passively while I ate. I was always the exception, circling the block with the stroller while everyone else dined, waving to me occasionally as I passed. That was a century ago and whoever would have thought that teens would seem attractive in any form?

That's really the most ironic aspect of this all given that there is nothing particularly redeeming about them -- having been one, and now being a parent to two of them. Teens are awkward, half-beings. Neither man, woman nor child. The teen is Nature's little inside joke -- bumbling outcasts, hanging in a limbo land of humanity.

Like I said, I just can't keep my eyes off them. And that's just the boys. Heaven help me when we get to the girl version. By then, I'll be veering unconsciously towards young twenty-somethings, which might ease the pain -- somewhat.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Can we talk about rodents for a bit? I don't mean the big gray ones on the subway platform, the size of small dogs. I want to talk about why parents cave to the reasonable but occasionally misguided notion, often directed by severe guilt, that children require rodents, particularly inner city children who have little access to nature in the wild, not counting the rats?

We good-hearted, animal loving parents run out and purchase these tiny creatures and their accompanying accessories -- organic food, roomy cage (a classic six at least), fresh-picked organic hay, house to sleep and hide in, non-bleached organic bedding, filtered water bottle, toys, flatscreen TV -- and $150 later, there it is, ensconced in your house. A tenant. Your kid spends exactly four minutes with it and then, guess who cleans, nurtures, feeds, coos, and spends quality time with the inmate? Guess who really bonds with it when the kids are plugged into the Wii?

Recently, we relocated our dear little friend, a guinea pig called Delilah, to New Jersey, after a mere three month sojourn in my daughter's room. We'd noticed a correlation between our cat's inordinate amount of time spent staring Delilah down from a distance, and her refusal to leave the cage except when pulled at full force (and even then she grabbed the sides of the door with her little hands as we tried to extract her). Delilah, who is now Lily, is delirious in Fort Lee. She has an older sibling, Lucy, and runs freely around a duplex townhouse, and obeys a single, nine-year old mistress. She definitely traded up and we have pics to prove it. My daughter cried for a day then the tears stopped as if on cue and she asked if we could try a couple of dwarf hamsters -- perhaps?

I was reminded of our experience while speaking to a friend yesterday who regaled me with the tale of Hamletta -- her hamster that broke its leg last week. The babysitter and the kids rushed Hamletta to the vet, who put a cast on her miniscule limb. The hamster, being of tiny mind and huge teeth, promptly chewed off the cast. The vet applied another, at no small cost. Same deal. Sorry, said the vet, the big heave-ho is your only option now. He didn't use those exact words.

At this point, my friend and her husband were already injecting Hamletta with a nightly concoction of antibiotics and painkillers, after a full day at work, followed by a full evening, chasing the terrified animal around her cage -- once a highly social and friendly creature that was now a petrified mess. It wasn't a life for them, or her. And it was costing. So they pulled their kids aside and came clean. Hamletta is going to, you know, well, not be here any more.
"The kids caught onto the euthanasia word really fast," my friend explained, and both of them abruptly fell to pieces, noisily, all over the floor. After much talking and explaining, they returned Hamletta to the vet, and my friend's daughter picked out a replacement and named this lucky creature Zippy. But hold it. The vet then tells them that euthanasia might not be necessary. Friend's kid stamps her foot. Now she wants Zippy. Hamletta can go to you-know-where. Friend is a therapist and explains the problem using lots of feeling words. Kid is contrite and then mournful. Kid is also sensitive (and smart) and wonders aloud if perhaps Hamletta should have been discharged to the great beyond a few days earlier to prevent her suffering? Limping hamster returns home but things spiral out of control and suddenly, playing God appears to be a wonderful option.
"It's like she knows," my friend said, sadly, having just administered another injection.
"Is the hamster going to be, you know, deaded, today?" her husband asked, reverting to the language of his three-year old, confused by the semantics of it all (he's a lawyer, language is a loaded barrel). His wife shrugged.
"So we can get Zippy?" the daughter asks, without missing a beat. Mother shakes her head. Hamster cowers. Daughter holds back a tantrum. Three-year old brother announces proudly to his sister that he is the only one in the house with a pet now (if you can call a fish a pet). My friend is wiped out -- exhausted, burned out, done with rodents for the foreseeable future.

As we leave this tragic scene that is undoubtedly being played out around the city, a word from the wise for those of you thinking that the furry-rodent, with a two year lifespan, is a small price to pay to stop your kid nagging.

Might we suggest taming some of those house-broken roaches that scuttle freely across your counter tops (only when there are guests around), or the pigeons that fight to get into your window when they aren't crapping all over it, or admiring adorable canines from afar, the ones that muck up your shoes with their enormous deposits (only when you are on your way to an important meeting)? And if all that fails to appease your cherished ones, may we suggest a great therapist, with firsthand knowledge of such things? We have the perfect candidate.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Monday Morning Moan

Where to begin? Do I start with the retail wasteland that once comprised the compelling elements of NYC -- unique stuff that brought the rest of the world here like moths to a flame?

I could be wrong but unless everyone is whizzing across the tri-state bridges because of a sudden urge to stock up at Duane Read (one on almost every block) or pay a hefty surcharge to withdraw funds they no longer have from Bank of America (one on every corner, there's even one in my apartment) there ain't much doing in the Big Apple beyond getting a mani/pedi, window shopping at Whole Paycheck, which you could do anywhere, or simply pretending that this metropolis offers anything challenging, different, or independent, beyond our huddled masses, waiting on cold platforms for trains that never come, when they aren't moaning about real estate and schools, that is.

It's hard not to feel the pinch when you have to check first to see if your favorite take-out joint is still in business each time you pick up the phone to order. Just yesterday, another local sushi restaurant bit the dust, although nothing except a drive-by would convince my friend David of this fact, who insisted he had eaten there just a few hours earlier.

My local Indian gem is boarded up now, and traveling from the far and similarly sterile east of York Avenue over go the west side this weekend, I couldn't help notice how the city has become one big homogeneous ode to conformity -- mega-chain stores that punctuate long stretches of sad, empty storefronts. In their effort to get the highest rents in history, NYC's landlords have turned the capital from a character destination into a smiling mouth of capped teeth. They have emptied it all out, pretty much, including the wonderful old Vesuvio Bakery on Prince Street. "It has that authenticity to it that's just magical," said a neighboring retailer, which made me weep instantly into my $4.99 packaged white bread from Gristedes, not because of the statement's truth as much as its inanity. Well, duh! The old Penn Station was magical too but we still knocked that sucker down and put up Madison Square Garden. Will we ever learn?

With just one and a half movie theaters left to service the entire Upper West Side and not an independent toy store within sight; with family-owned bookstores struggling for their life (Morningside Bookshop on Broadway at 114th) and independent retailers going out of business faster than you can say stimulus package, where are we headed? And don't tell me it's because we're in a recession. The retail flight has been going on a while now.

But all is not entirely lost. One tiny, little piece of good news amid the wailing and coat-renting:
Tropicana Juice is reverting back to it's original packaging and ditching the generic crap that they have paid their ad agency millions to design, based solely on 'research.' Apparently, Tropicana's trusted consumers -- not the few polled for the focus groups -- hate the new look, me included. In a nifty and highly ironic PR move that underlines how much we have become a society that compensates failure, the agency behind the mess, Arnell, declared that the negative consumer response to the new OJ packaging was a good thing and that they were glad that Tropicana was getting "this kind of attention." Yes sir, they are feeling just dandy, applauding a job well done, all the way to the bank.

Gotta' go. I think it's my landlord calling.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Boys (and Girls) Need Plastic Guns

Lest you think this is a pro-NRA rant and that I am about to defend deer-hunting, pig-sticking, or moose-clubbing in the wilds (they can party all they want as far as I'm concerned), rest assured that not one of those sentiments shall be expressed here today. What I really need to discuss is the fact that boys -- starting from the moment they can stand on their two wobbly feet, through the first hint of acne -- have been deprived of those good old, made in China, plastic contraptions that resemble the real thing -- the toy pistol -- thus denying them an intrinsic form of role play that is as important as putting a foot or hand to a ball, or engaging in an all out wrestling match.

We happened across a bargain basement in Montreal last week, the kind that is irresistible to kids and thrifty adults alike, and beyond the endless walls of English candy that beckoned like a cup of steaming hot chocolate on a frigid day (keeping the metaphors very proper here), my boys were instantly drawn to a section of toy guns and rifles so alluring that the candy might well have been cement filler.

When we weren't trouping around the Old City, or quaffing bagels, or ice skating in Mount Royal Park in spite of the chill, the boys spent the better part of four days hurtling themselves across the beds, jumping in and out of the two adjoining rooms, hiding behind doorways, in closets, and behind chairs in a wonderfully old-fashioned game of Quantam of Solace meets Jesse James that healthy young chaps with pent-up testosterone once dared to play. What a bloody relief to see them off the computers and playing cat and mouse with gleeful abandon. I resisted that politically correct little whine from somewhere deep within my psyche, wondering if this wasn't going to subvert their normal, passive behavior and turn them into serial mass murderers? What folly, I thought, but confess to taking the extra precaution of hiding the toys deep inside our suitcases while the rooms were cleaned.

It seems that our uptight, self-aggrandizing, politically correct society has completely blurred the distinction between fiction and reality, thanks to a nonstop, media menu of violent programs. The resulting double standard has us moralizing about guns leading to violence, while making a quick buck from the very issue we claim to abhor. Instead, we deal with our fear of real guns and real violence by pulling the imitation away from the kids. It's far easier to suppose that little Jimmy's happy romp with a toy pistol is just one step short of going postal than to actually take on the NRA. No doubt that the odd sociopath might well emerge from time spent with some plastic, but isn't that the law of averages? Just hazarding a guess but it's highly possible, almost certain in fact, that the leap from toy pistol to an Uzi requires a considerable mental disturbance of some kind, and a few other variables such as negligent parenting, rage, and social ostracism, which is also something we should be attending to.

How about we work really hard on barring access to the real thing -- the easily accessible handguns, AK47's, etc. and letting little boys -- I'm making a big distinction here between school children and teen gang members -- act out an age old fantasy that is as much as part of their male chemistry as the hair that will sprout over their young lips?

In your dreams, boys, in your dreams. Meanwhile, go kill some bad guys on your Game Cube and leave me in peace. Can't you see I'm working here?

Monday, February 9, 2009

No Sleep Means More Time

I'm not even going to touch the sleep issue. It's been almost a week now since the eight-year old has run in at 3am. I've come to realize that the whole notion of shuteye is vastly overrated. Even though the Japanese used sleep deprivation as a method of torture there are people like Bill Clinton who claim that they can get by quite well with only four hours a night. That might explain quite a lot, as far as he's concerned, but what it tells me is that it's do-able, so I'll just continue the refugee-like wandering, pillow and comforter in hand, looking for a place to settle my weary frame, or possibly try a paradigm shift and look on it as an opportunity to extend the day and accomplish some additional projects. I can't vouch for the quality of what I will do, but why sleep when you can be wide awake and working?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Child wakes in night; mother drinks Scotch from bottle

We tried. Two nights in a row, in her own bed, which was pretty good. But last night the dreaded footsteps signaled her return. Then I really self-sabotaged.

I took her to see Tim Burton's Coraline. Word was that the Neil Gaiman's dark novel had been lightened for younger audiences, but sitting watching it, I couldn't help thinking that if that was really the case a) the book would scare the crap out of me and b) what the hell was I thinking? Well, actually, I wasn't. I hadn't slept, you see. I kept nodding off during the movie and shivered under my coat because the air-conditioning was full on, in spite of the 20 degree weather outside. I heard the girls laugh, seated in the row behind me but then, as the last credits rolled, my eight-year old daughter leaned over and whispered into my ear, "that was creepy." Her four friends, nodded, and Helena, a three-year old pistol, going on eighteen, was already sitting on her mother's knee, face buried. Even Olivia, who has no fear of enormous, vomit-inducing roller coasters and will watch the most suspenseful Harry Potter movies (that was the yardstick when they were seven) looked a little pale and her freckles actually stood out in the darkened theater. I looked at them all, decked out in their nightwear and bath robes (it had been Pajama Day at school), wearing their 3-D glasses that resembled Ray Bans. Did I mention those? It's a wonderful new feature that Hollywood has figured out as a means of extracting an additional $2 per ticket.

After we left and headed up Broadway, the girls marveled at the 3-D spectacle around them as they walked abreast, arms linked. I trailed them, wondering if the movie had renewed the ebbing nightmares afresh, and wondered if that sexy romp of a romantic comedy might not have been a better option? Making out and a little nudity were surely more favorable than the ghosts of dead children and Burton's signature, morbidly Gothic ambiance. Too late to be worrying about that. The deed was done.

When the movie ended, most schools were still in session but my daughter's is unique in that the first Friday of every month is a half-day, which ends at noon. Barely any point to going in. I often feel resentful of this lost time to work, especially if I am on babysitting duty, but then my resistance dissipates as I shepherd these young, chattering, women-to-be along the crowded street, which is rather like herding cats. They talk endlessly about fabulously insignificant subjects that are their life -- sleepovers, play dates, bad jokes, and the boys in their class. Passers-by smile, and the sidewalk opens up like the Red Sea as they approach. Sure, I thought today, I could be at home plugging away at an assignment, or trying to catch up on those lost hours in the night, but I also knew that, deep down I wouldn't miss these fleeting moments for the whole world.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Bedroom Tale

So here's the story: Last week it had been three months since my eight-year old daughter had slept in her own bedroom. The issue began at Thanksgiving. She had generously given up her space for guests and relocated to our floor on an airbed. When the guests departed, so did she -- for just two nights. Then the nightmares began and she ran in at 3am. We were wakened from deep slumber by the approach of her frantic footsteps as she torpedoed into the bed, sending the cat flying.

A week of it left me noticeably grumpy -- if that's how you describe screaming at everyone and everything in sight. But nothing could induce her to stay in her bed. She complained of noises, and shadows, and a growling in her ear. We tried everything -- threats, rewards, and left all the lights on so that it was brighter than Vegas. Bedtime always seemed promising -- endless stories, hugs, kisses, whispered talks, sitting in the armchair -- but come the middle-of-the-night we'd hear the familiar sound of her hurtling towards our room. She's a sensitive kid but not prone to drama, and she became increasingly anxious about spending any time in her bedroom. Her fear was contagious and I found myself questioning the vibe whenever I was in there. The room became somewhat neglected. The door stayed shut and I felt bad. In a city where space was so precious, we were being complacent about an enormous bedroom. But there was no avoiding the strange energy that we all felt in there. One night, when she had kicked me out the bed and I was left staggering about in the wee hours, I collapsed into her bed. But I slept poorly, and left the light on, which I did not tell my husband.

I happened to mention the issue to my friend Leah, who is Native American by birth. "Sounds like there's a spirit attached to the room," she said matter-of-factly. The hairs on my arms and neck stood on end. She offered to check it out. She brought her 3-year old son, who had been experiencing strange energy in his own bedroom. The moment he entered, he insisted on closing the door. "I don't get it," Leah said. "He never does that, anywhere. Not even at home."

As she stepped into the room, she paled noticeably. "The air's heavy," she said. "I feel as though I can barely make it to the window. It's like walking through fog." She paced around the room and then felt a pain in her chest. After a few minutes she was so overcome by sadness she fled to an adjacent room and her breathing had become labored. "Definitely something in there," she said. "Let's sage it."

I knew what it meant. It had been suggested once before and I had bought a large bunch of sage. When alight, it's aroma was so strong, that my daughter and I were enveloped quickly in a sea of it, whirling through the apartment. Small pieces of lit kindling started to fall on the floor and I might well have brought down the entire, fifteen story building. The irony is not lost on me. But this time, the herbal clearing would be done under controlled circumstances. The process is also known as smudging, based on the Native North American belief that homes and bodies are more than physical but bristle with invisible energy. Smudging is considered a speedy and simple way to remove negative energy, calling on the spirits of sacred plants such as sage.

Did I believe that we had spirits? I believed we had something and it wasn't roaches, I'd already rid the apartment of those. Later that night, I felt empathy rather than anger for my daughter. I even let her sleep in our bed but was relieved when Leah came over a few days later with a clay pot and tiny bundles of sage to burn. We circled the pot around our bodies, wrapping ourselves in the pungent smoke, to protect ourselves, according to Leah, and then we headed for the bedroom. Leah took charge. I was a trembling sissy. She spoke aloud and calling on my daughter's ancestors to help out, asked that the little girl in the room, the daughter of the house, be allowed to sleep in peace. "We honor you and wish you a safe journey, but please allow this child to her sleep. Let her room become a safe, loving place." At one point, I felt a strong chill near the door. Leah joined me and felt the same thing. Then she had a revelation. "There's more than one!" I grappled with a desire to follow the cowardly lion and hurl myself from the window. The energy in the room changed perceptibly. After an hour of saging the room, Leah turned to me and smiled. "I feel happy. It's peaceful," she said.

When my 13-year old came home that afternoon he took one sniff and gave me the once over. "You haven't been, you-know --?" He pretended to smoke.

When my daughter returned, I toyed with telling her nothing but decided to share the fact that Leah had heard about her nightmares and had put some positive energy into the room with the sage. She loved the smell of it, which we won't focus on, and sitting on her bed, she said it felt different -- safe. That night she slept and woke with a smile on her face. Last night, she slept again. Tonight....We'll see.

Was the whole episode an age-appropriate (me or my daughter?) psychological milestone? Perhaps. Something else? We'll never know but I have more sage and I'm not afraid to use it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pondering, Wondering, and Slumbering

There's nothing to suggest that it's a slow day in the blogosphere. To be sure, there's plenty going on out there, it's just that I'm hard-pressed to know exactly which issue should take precedence. I noticed that Pope Benedict XVI has demanded that Bishop Richard Williamson recant some of the abominable statements he has made about the Holocaust but hey, it's a bit after the fact, isn't it? According to the Pope, he had absolutely no idea that Williamson felt so at odds with documented world history when he lifted Williamson's excommunication ban, until it hit the press. Could be because he's just too busy figuring out why the Moslem world is still in such an uproar over his comment that Islam tends towards irrational violence compared to Christianity ("Nobody expects the Spanish'Inquisition!"). Then I noticed the noise about poor young Michael Phelps, caught on a cellphone camera smoking a doobie at some frat party (apparently he didn't inhale). One part of me thought "leave the kid alone, he's already proved himself plenty," while the other part of me thought "dammit, he took $100 million in endorsements on the basis that he would not light anything up," so couldn't he just be a smart boy and build himself his own private smoke room at home? The rationale for his behavior is flying in fast and furious (he's ADHD; it's medical; he thought it was a carrot; he's all brawn). I'll accept the last one, wish him luck, and leave it at that. Or I could write about the most important thing in the entire world that happened just last night -- my daughter slept in her own bedroom for the first time in three months, and did not stir once, until the cat crowed at 6am this morning. Can we have an action replay tonight? How we accomplished this victory is a fairly interesting story. I'll bore you with it tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's a Jolly Holiday

It snowed in England yesterday for the first time in 18 years and according to my mother, who lives in Central London, the entire country shut down and folded its arms. Inclement weather notwithstanding, you have to understand how big a deal this snowfall was -- like the heatwave that almost killed us there a few summers back. Just as they don't have air conditioners or ice cold drinks to ward off the heat, nor do they have a plan of action that will unclog the streets or train tracks when it snows. Apparently, Primrose Hill, my favorite high point, next to Regent's Park, was clogged with 600 gleeful souls, whizzing down the gentle slope on everything from street signs to an actual ironing-board. And if you're vaguely familiar with Monty Python, Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, Little Britain, or Katherine Tate, then you know that Brits are essentially lunatic beneath all the pomp and circumstance. It's not hard to imagine Her Royal Majesty, behind the safety of the palace walls, far from prying eyes, letting her hair down after a Guinness or two. I can imagine her bouncing maniacally on the four poster perhaps, with the Corgies springing up and down beside her. Philip, of course, is at the other end of the building, practicing his Groucho Marx gait, wearing the accompanying glasses and mustache, and perhaps one of Lizzy's glittery evening numbers, for good measure. In acting out their abandoned inner child, like every other Brit, they are proof that behind the repressed, tight upper lip of your inscrutable Englishman exists a frothing madman or madwoman, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth. Excuse me while I go drink to that.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stealing from the Past

I wept through a preview of Steve Martin as The Pink Panther, offering the fake French accent and stupid pratfalls, and I can't begin to articulate my complete revulsion at the sight, not only as an avid Peter Sellers fan, but as someone who feels strongly that if it wasn't broken, who the heck asked you to fix it? My suggestion to Hollywood, for what it's worth, is steer clear of remakes -- don't touch them with a 300 foot barge pole with Tony Scott riding atop. Then again, you might as well go all the way and shoot these remade horrors on duct tape, given the standard of the average script these days -- 80-page pieces of crap that seem cobbled together only to pull $12.50 out of those fool enough to go see them. Considering that the majority of current audiences have never even heard of the original movie, it's stealing formula from a baby. I have suggested that my kids accept no one other than Sellars as the Pink Panther and having sat through the abysmal Paul Blart recently (I was hog-tied to my seat, honestly!) I can only lament a lack of decent scripts and the fact that we wouldn't know a real dramatic arc if we saw it in a movie theater. A whole pipeline of remade fodder will soon muddy the big screens and join those already sacrificed to the altar of Mammon, such as Bewitched, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, The Manchurian Candidate, The Poseidon Adventure, and Sabrina, with these on their way: The Taking of Pelham 123, The Birds, Straw Dogs, Westworld, Fame, The Witches, and The Dirty Dozen, to name just a few. We have truly hit the age of mediocrity, with nary an original thought in our profit-obsessed minds because it's way easier to dig back into the archives and take something that was unique and successful and do it over instead of producing something truly pioneering, fresh, and creative. I wonder what's next? Citizen Kane with Kiefer Sutherland? Casablanca with Joaquim Phoenix, rapping on the tarmac to Hilary Duff? Or possibly a darker, non-musical version of The Wizard of Oz, with Miley Cyrus as Dotty, haunted by a vapid character known as Hannah Montana, wishing that the bright lights would dim and that she could just go home and be a real kid again. Whatever it is, whichever classic Hollywood plans to lay its grubby, untalented paws on next, know one thing for sure -- nothing's safe and unfortunately, nothing's sacred. Now that was one great movie. Remake anyone?