Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Even Barbie Gets the Blues

How times have changed. When I was a kid, Barbie had it all. She was multi-faceted and versatile in her career, capable of being launched into space, thanks to her astronaut training, yet also at home running her own boutique (and she was financially diversified, thanks to her franchise opportunity with McDonald’s). She was outdoorsy – an avid horsewoman with her own RV – and sporty, with frequent visits to the spa or gym she owned. She spent her time between her luxe apartment in the city and her dream home, complete with pool, in the country. She preferred to drive the pink Corvette but she also had the silver ’Vette for when she wanted to be taken more seriously. For her city adventures, there was her moped. She even had a dirtbike and a Jeep for her country excursions. And, for the days when she wanted to be part of the jetset, she could either pilot her own plane or moonlight as a flight attendant to see how the other half lived. Ken was always around, but she wasn’t tied down. She had other admirers and divided her time accordingly. She was a modern woman, and I loved her and lived vicariously through her.

So imagine my shock and disappointment recently as I walked through WalMart’s Barbie aisle with my daughters and discovered a package with some kitchen/dining room furniture for Barbie’s house. In this package were a table and two chairs, and on the table were two plates of food. One chair at the table was empty and in the other was a cardboard Barbie with a speech bubble saying, “Oh no! Ken is late!”

At first, I laughed. I found it hilarious that even beautiful, blonde, buxom Barbie gets dinner ruined because Ken is late, likely AGAIN. I even momentarily applauded Mattel for providing a real-life image of commitment and adulthood. Clearly, the makers of Barbie are not of the Disney variety, where every wannabe princess lands her dreamy prince; and off they waltz (literally) into the sunset, immaculately clad, complete with familial blessings (and often with a sassy, talking pet), in a false image of marital bliss. Though my sisterhood with Barbie was likely never stronger than at that moment (that Ken is a JERK!!), seeing the two plates on the table and only one occupied chair, I quickly became horrified. While I typically embrace reality and disdain the Disney-fied fantasy, I quickly realized – seeing lonely Barbie – that there are definite perks to fantasy, and that reality comes all too soon and, often, it really does bite.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stood-Up Barbie in the weeks since I saw her. Granted, she was a cardboard insert in the furniture box, and I know Mattel would certainly never actually make a Stood Up Barbie. But a lot of Barbies have been made over the years and Barbie, originally marketed in 1959 as a "teenage fashion model,” has delved into many “adult” careers, Hollywood personas, etc. She’s been an architect, a professional roller skater (frankly, who doesn’t aspire for a career like this??), she’s been Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, she’s been a Viking princess, a beach bum, a bride, a doctor. The list goes on and on, to cover 52 years of creations.

In 2009, they developed (really!) a Totally Tattoos Barbie, although Mattel realized fairly quickly the errors of their ways and pulled Ink’d Barbie. In 1997, they even developed Oreo Barbie, which apparently was a marketing blitz with Nabisco, resulting in a Barbie with whom you’d want to share a cookie. But Oreo Barbie was made in both Caucasian and African-American versions, before Mattel realized a black “Oreo” Barbie might suffer a backlash. There have Barbie faux-pas over the years, yet it's most interesting what Barbie HASN'T been. She’s been a sister, a cousin and a niece, but never a mom. Taking a page from Disney, perhaps Mattel decided this was too much reality and not enough fantasy.

I can see the packaging now…Barbie, with bags under her eyes and unstyled hair, is wearing stained clothes that don’t fit her quite right. She comes with a baby that actually spits up and a kindergarten-aged kid. The speech bubble from the little kid says, “Something stinks in here. It’s either the garbage or your breath!” (actual quote from Grace a few weeks ago) Indeed, this would not be a glamorous Barbie. Parents would likely be horrified at this Barbie, and even the short-sighted creators of Oreo Barbie haven’t been this stupid. Another Barbie never developed: Military Spouse Barbie. She would likely come with kids (strike one!) and pets and a framed family photo showing GI Ken, with additional optional accessories including a moving van, several boxes and a detachable, hideaway hip flask (strike two!). No one has ever seen this particular Ken, since he is always working late or deployed. It is likely we’ll see Amish Barbie (her only accessories: a bonnet and a clothesline) before Mattel dares venture into these frightful territories.

Ironically (or maybe not), the Barbie we know today was based on a German comic strip character named Lilli, out to improve her lot in life by marrying well. Comic-strip-Lilli eventually became a doll marketed to adults in post-war Germany. Mattel founder Ruth Handler found Lilli on a trip to Switzerland and brought three dolls back to the U.S. After de-floozy-ing Lilli and transforming her into a “teenage fashion model,” Barbie was born. A billion dolls and 52 years later, Barbie – at her kitchen table, waiting for Ken – seems to have more in common with the likely problems of Lilli ("Men!"), and less in common with the problems of a teenage-fashion-model ("Which is more flattering - stripes or a geometric pattern?"). Ugh. Poor Barbie. Give me the Disney-princess-fairy-tale any day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Appreciating the Little Things, part 2

Like all family members, we had our differences. Over the years, there were fallings out, harsh words, hard feelings and the occasional regret. But there were also years of good times, lots of laughs and lots of memories. Small in size, but giant in personality and spirit, Pipkin was a cat that left her mark – in the hearts of some people and on the faces of some others. She was a cat who lived life on her own terms – as often as a cat can or is allowed to.

As I was crafting the last blog about appreciating the little things in life, tragedy struck. Pipkin, our sassy and feisty, almost-12-year-old cat, became sick. Within 24 hours of taking her to the vet for a diagnosis, we had to put her to sleep. It was not just unexpected but a shock, really– despite her age, she was the picture of health (svelte and active her whole life, I kind of expected her to be with us forever). The days immediately following her loss were surprisingly empty; I was startled at the void a six-pound cat was able to leave. Even two months later, I still think I see and hear her around the house. Her absence, as was her presence, is surprisingly everywhere. So, in keeping with appreciating the little things (and she was the littlest of things), I jotted some notes down in the aftermath of her loss, so as to not forget or lose track of all the reasons we appreciated this littlest of creatures.

Pipkin was the cat-equivalent of the crazy uncle so many families have – you know, the one with all the great stories who always lands in the midst of ridiculous adventures or is the instigator of hilarious hijinks. Nadia summed it all up one night when we were sitting around the table, trading stories and memories about silly things Pipkin had done or caused or been a part of, and Nadia said, “And she loved to dance.” Pipkin didn’t, of course, but I loved to dance with her (and this, I realize, says much more about me than her). We got into the habit when she was just a kitten. One day I decided she had the body of a dancer thanks to her litheness and fluidity of movement (I think I was unemployed at the time, by way of an explanation), and from that day forward, we would boogie down together if a rockin’ tune happened to come on. The look of disgust on her little face was palpable, yet she withstood it, quietly indignant. Something about her tolerance of it (and me, I suspect) endeared her to me; and she was my dance partner for the next decade+ (the poor cat).

Of course, there were many things about Pipkin, dance ability aside, that I find myself missing. * Sometimes, her tongue would hang out of her mouth, just a little bit. You’d walk by and there she was, looking like she was sticking her tongue out at you. Perhaps she was, as a protest for the dance torture…who can say? * She was so small when we got her from the pound (four weeks old, weighing in at eight ounces) that we had to use a dictionary as a step for her to be able to get into the litter box. * One Halloween, she wandered over to the door to see what the heck was going on and a kid in a clown costume honked his clown horn. That was the day we discovered clowns can incite terror across species. * As a kitten, she followed the Thanksgiving leftovers into the refrigerator (she always preferred fresh turkey to coldcuts) and spent some time, unnoticed, closed in the refrigerator. * She loved yogurt; strawberry was her favorite. If a container was open, she was there, waiting patiently for me to pass her the lid with some yogurt spooned on the top for her to lick up. She also loved milk and made a giant nuisance of herself, always on the table, sticking her feet into glasses of milk and then lapping the milk off her feet. She tormented my milk almost exclusively, which was quite possibly a deserved, purposeful retaliation for all the dancing. * While Mike and I slept, she would sometimes park herself inches away from one of our faces and would touch a bottom lip with her paw. You’d open your eyes, and there she was…scary close (along with the most offensive cat breath ever). Her breath alone could rouse you from sleep, without the claw on the lip. * She also loved to curl up in the crook of Mike’s legs while we slept and, if she had a super power, it was the ability to transform from a six-pound-cat into a 30-pound-anchor when asleep. Once she was settled, it was impossible to move her. * One time I walked into the kitchen and found her with her head in the garbage disposal. At the sound of her name, up she popped, with a fajita pepper in her mouth. * As a kitten, she had an allergic reaction to a shot and hopped around the house on three legs for an afternoon. * She had a raspy meow, like she’d been smoking and downing Southern Comforts for too many years.

Despite being “just a cat,” Pipkin was funny and quirky and an integral part of our family. She was our “kid” before we had kids. She was with us for almost 12 years, traveling from Missouri to Germany to New York and back to her Midwest roots in multiple homes in Kansas. She withstood our transient lifestyle and the addition of child after child, all without complaint. She was a small, bony shoulder to cry on, on occasion, and loved us unconditionally – or at least let us believe as much, thanks to her inability to talk and ruin all our misconceptions. And if that’s not something to appreciate and be grateful for, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Life Appreciation 101

I love to travel, except for the fact that I hate to travel. It’s another of the great dilemmas in my life. I thoroughly enjoy seeing new places and discovering new things, but the general trouble about doing these things is that I have to get there first. So, when I say I hate to travel, it’s not the act of being there that’s so offensive, it’s the act of getting there.

Specifically, I hate to fly. There are several reasons I dislike flying, which I am sure are the same reasons so many people despise air travel. But the overwhelming reason I hate flying is because I am convinced, every time I get on an airplane, that I am going to die. I know this is irrational and statistically unlikely, but anyone who knows me knows that things that statistically should not happen to me still do. However, the rational side wins when it must and I will fly when other modes of transportation are not a viable option.

Since I took multiple flights this summer, I am fairly shocked that I am still here to muse about this issue. As I rehashed to a friend I visited on one of the trips (the one most familiar with my neuroses) how I’d barely slept in the days leading to my arrival because of my convinced impending demise, she noted that: a) I’m a little bit crazy, and b) it’s a miracle I ever leave the house (because there are actually many things that I think will kill me).

Yet, in my sleeplessness prior to the flights that proved NOT to kill me, I had several quiet hours to reflect on the many wonderful things in life that I was going to miss, assuming I didn’t survive the flights. These thoughts got me thinking about an art appreciation course I took in college – a course dedicated to pointing out the often-overlooked details that made various projects so extraordinary - and made me wish there were a series of courses dedicated to Life, and how to focus better on the small details that so often get overlooked. I started to mentally develop a course outline for my brainchild – this non-existent class – to help facilitate an appreciation of the thing most of us take for granted most often.

My Life Appreciation course would begin with a tribute to diner pancakes. Not because pancakes are the most important things, but I think most people can rally behind the goodness of pancakes. As a teacher, it’s important to hook the students from the get-go, and I think pancakes are something that almost everyone can rally behind. Both diners and pancakes are an art form, if done correctly. A small-town, locals-infested greasy spoon diner – the kind with one griddle where everything gets cooked together – is the zenith of the diner scene, and their pancakes, and warmed cup of pure maple syrup, are amazing.

Also on the syllabus would be the Franken-Toddle. When a child is just learning how to walk, as I have recently been reminded as Liam finally mastered this gross motor skill, their haphazard and unsteady stagger is a joy to behold. It doesn’t last long, but the broad-stanced, zombie-armed lurching, accompanied by unintelligible baby grunts, is awesome to watch. Like the crisp crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet, it passes so quickly.

One of my favorite things is something I’d call Small Gestures. I don’t think of myself as a needy person and there aren’t many things I want. My favorite things are the unasked-for gestures, most always small, that speak volumes. An example: one day this summer, I was lying on the couch and Mike came over, sat on the floor next to me and rested his head on my stomach. He didn’t say anything; he just did it. I got choked up then, and a little bit now, as the thought crossed my mind, “He just loves me.” Sometimes the intimacy in a small gesture can take a breath away.

I’d classify another appreciation category Small Victories, into which would fall the smell of a clean car. The first time getting into the van after it’s been cleaned – when all ladybug carcasses, rock collections, snack remnants, stray clothing and shoes, buffalo fur (actual discovery from the most recent clean-out), etc., have been removed and the only thing that remains in the smell is of the cleaning solution on the mats – is immensely satisfying. Another sub-category is combed hair. When all people in my house have neat, orderly hair simultaneously, I just feel better about the world.

Then there’s Figuring It All Out, which occurs when kids are at the age when they are obtaining knowledge like a sponge dropped in the ocean and reaching their own conclusions. Nadia and I were talking about smoking this summer and I told her the basics in unbiased language (nicotine, addiction, health concerns, etc). When we were done talking, she summed it all up for me, in words I never used: “So people who smoke get old and smelly and their bodies get broken because they smoke.” And that’s the magical enlightenment of figuring it all out. A conversation about what a boyfriend is, mingled with an explanation of what it means to “break up,” had Nadia making some very humorous conclusions for a week or more. The world, as simplified by a child, can be a very fun place to live.

Of course, there are many things that could be covered in the Life Appreciation course, and I think enlightening class discussions would arise as people shared their own lists of favorite things. The course would be productive for multiple reasons, the most important of which would be embracing the good and trivializing the unimportant. Having faced death multiple times this summer, and thankfully emerging victorious, I am grateful for the sleepless soul-searching which, for a day or two, at least, made me a better, more rational version of myself and helped me focus on the important things, embracing the many wonderful things that often get overlooked in the craziness of everyday life.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Postcard from Candy Land

We continue to eat away, figuratively and literally, at our stash of Easter candy. From 2010, that is. A couple of days ago, I had a handful of year-old jelly beans and Grace had some Halloween candy, as well as a piece of Christmas Bubble Tape that I am embarrassed to say originates from Christmas 2009. One of the positive things about moving every year is that it’s easy to match up memories of holiday candy to a specific house, which can then be correlated to the year we celebrated that holiday in that particular house. The other benefit of moving every year, if you’re wondering, is that there’s never a need to do any extensive cleaning, as I figure we’ll be leaving all of the dirt behind soon enough.

As I expressed concern to Mike over the 17-month old gum Grace was eager to discover, he reassured me that there is likely nothing perishable about gum and that it probably has an infinite shelf life, which is always encouraging when your kids are eating candy produced in the previous decade. Perhaps of greater concern should be my inability to throw all this crap in the garbage. Sometimes I wonder if I lived through the Depression in an alternate life.

All these piles of candy (which are definitely excessive when you hear yourself saying to your kids on a regular basis, “Please, can you guys eat some Halloween/Christmas/Easter candy today, so as to dwindle the mountainous pile?!?!) got me thinking. Candy-mania season begins with Halloween – which means the promotion and sales probably starts around Labor Day - and ends with Easter, which is a whopping seven-month season of non-stop candy consumption. Inadvertently, thanks to a 17-month-old piece of gum, I may have just discovered the source of America’s childhood obesity problem. The holidays.

But not only did I think, I went so far as to do some research on the evolution of our holidays into candy-dictated events. Of course, I use the term “research,” consisting of a couple Google searches and some pithy articles published in non-scientific journals, loosely. And, for the sake of ease, I only used articles that already supported my previously held opinions and beliefs, which would make the writing of this blog much easier and quicker.

Though Halloween begins the free-for-all of candy collection, consumption and, ultimately, revulsion, Halloween was late to hop on the candy bandwagon. While Halloween has been around for centuries, the marriage of Halloween and giant quantities of candy is only 30-some-odd years old. Originally, Halloween was the day that people believed the ghosts of the dead could return to the earth. People dressed in “costumes” (animal skins, skulls, etc) to frighten away the spirits. As the holiday evolved, Halloween eventually morphed into general hijinks and debauchery involving pranks by children and, later, into the mother of all candy holidays. My research revealed that Americans spent $2 billion on candy during the 2010 Halloween season and that an average jack-o-lantern bucket holds 250 pieces of candy, equaling 9000 calories. The statistics associated with Halloween and candy was far more frightening than Halloween itself, so I shifted to research on Christmas candy.

Christmas and goodies have been buddied up for years. Boxes of chocolates as gifts were firmly established by 1900, and the advent calendar – the version with a piece of chocolate per day to count down the month of December – dates back to the 1950s. The advent calendar begins the Christmas consumption season, which also consists of ubiquitous baked goods laden with fat, sugar, more fat and more sugar, and culminates with the Christmas stocking, a giant sock chock full o’ candy and tchotchkes. We even decorate the inanimate tree with candy, and the candy cane dates back almost 350 years. Besides learning a little about the history of holiday candy, I have also discovered that some of these holiday traditions we are imbued with seem just a little odd when thought of out of context.

Thankfully, there’s a brief reprieve from candy-ingestion after Christmas, while we make – and subsequently break – our New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get in shape after all that holiday bingeing we partook in. There’s also the hope – in our house, at least, since I can’t throw the leftovers away - to eradicate the candy stockpile before Valentine’s Day, which is far less about love and more about sassy candy hearts that often say inappropriate things to the children for whom they are marketed. And so Valentine’s Day replenishes the pile anew, while the store shelves are already filling with the next major holiday’s goods.

If Halloween is the mother of all candy holidays, Easter is the grandpappy of them all. Candy peddling at Easter borders on the irresponsible. Not only does the freakishly large rabbit bring the Easter basket, full of chocolate and sugar and marshmallow delicacies, there are also the Easter eggs, full of smaller versions of the same candies. Of course, there are the “special” candies – the likes of Peeps and some Cadbury products, which Mike swears makes Easter candy the best of the holiday candies- that make Easter barely second to Halloween in amounts of dollars spent and calories consumed.

Unrelated, but completely worth mentioning…Speaking of Peeps, I discovered there’s an entire Peeps-based subculture, involving Peeps-related science experiments, a movie release titled Lord of the Peeps (all characters are appropriately-clad Peeps) and something I am nervous to further explore, Peeps erotica.

Finally, Easter passes and the candy manufacturers give us a break for the summer, when we have to face the sad reality of bathing suit season after the eight billion pounds of candy we consumed since last year. Quick math: 8 billion pounds of candy consumed divided by 300 million people in the U.S. equals 25 pounds of candy, per person, per year. Yikes. Suddenly, I feel depressed. Thank goodness there’s so much chocolate on hand to soothe the nerves.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Innocence Revisited

When I was 17 and so much more knowledgeable about the world than I am today, I wrote an essay that demonstrated just how bright and precocious I was. I wrote the essay on the eve of my high school graduation, and the subject was An Appreciation of Childhood Innocence. As I reached the milestone of passing from “dependent childhood” and high school to “independent adulthood” and college, I was mourning the stage of my life that I’d decided was finished – the youthful innocence and sense of wonder that continuously atrophies with every bit of acquired knowledge about the world, about life, about one’s self.

I read the essay at graduation; and it was well received – particularly by the adults in the audience. Since I’m not especially modest, I will attest that it was a pretty good essay. Or that’s what I thought at the time. Today, all these years later, I think it must’ve been a great essay, as I have a whole new appreciation of the precious, fleeting, youthful innocence – as I watch it already beginning to dissipate in my own beautiful children.

Sure, I’m aware of the irony. I wrote the essay at 17, at a time when there was so much for me still to learn, still to discover. I knew a lot at 17, but I had a lot to learn. When I was 17, I knew that my childhood innocence was pretty well gone but a hindsight-look at oneself is different than a real-time observation of someone else. At 17, though I knew childhood was fleeting and over so quickly, I hadn’t yet fully realized just how sad this all is. It is likely, at my relatively young age of 34, that I still don’t appreciate this completely, as I will discover as still more time passes.

But I am sometimes startled as I begin to notice the youthful wonder already disappearing in six-year-old Grace. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a DVD at the library. It was a collection of episodes called Growing Up Wild, produced by Animal Planet, with episodes focusing on baby Arctic animals. I wasn’t familiar with the shows but, based on the write-up, decided the episodes would be good and educational for the kids. A day or two later, it went into the DVD player in the van. The kids wear their headphones, and I wasn’t privy to the narration of the polar bear episode. When we reached our destination, I turned around to announce we’d arrived, and there was Grace, tears streaming down her face. The look on her face was one of heartbreak, and I was immediately choked up as I asked her why she was so upset. She told me, broken-voiced and teary-eyed, the sad story of the baby polar bear that was orphaned when its mother was shot. Taken to a rescue facility, caretakers nursed the bear back to health. It grew up alone, without other polar bears, dependent on humans for its survival. The story broke Grace’s heart, and her exposure to and realization of the crappy things that can happen in life broke my own heart. I shed some tears – both for the sad, little polar bear, but mainly for my sad, little six-year-old, who will soon know that there’s a full – and sometimes awful – world beyond the walls of our safe, insular home. The fleeting nature of innocence and ignorance, which often is quite blissful, is a sorrowful thing, indeed.

But, thankfully, there are still more of the other, less-aware days that are so fun to witness. Not long ago, when talking about the president, Grace asked where the president lives. We told her, “In a big house – they call it the White House – in Washington, DC.” And Grace countered with, “I’d like to go there sometime and ring the doorbell.” Ah, if only it was so easy. And then, a few days ago, on the ride to school, Grace heard the radio DJ talking about Justin Bieber. She proclaimed, “Virginia has a notebook with Justin Beaver on it.” I asked if she knew who Justin “Beaver” is and she said she didn’t, but that some of her classmates know him. My heart rejoiced, grateful for this one additional day in which she is unaware of “pop icons” and tween crushes like Justin “Beaver” and Hannah “Muh”tana.

The same morning, Nadia woke up and immediately recounted a dream she had about Diego, the adventuring, “handsome” boy of Go, Diego, Go! In this particular dream, Nadia and Diego were in a rainforest, on an adventure (of course), and there were river dolphins, beautiful birds and all kinds of animals. She sometimes dreams of watching cartoons and she frequently dreams of princesses, or that she is a princess. The “prince” in her dreams is either Diego, or Mike, and all is right in her four-year-old world.

Liam, in all his one-year-old glory, mostly just bats his eyelashes and charms everyone he meets. Everywhere, he is welcomed with compliments, admiration and attention. Everyone in the world, from his standpoint, is a friend and fan, and goodness abounds.

Most of the time, I worry about the kids and all the things in life that they may have to encounter and endure. But there are also plenty of moments when I envy them, as I think that they must think the world is such a great place, thanks to all the things they have the good fortune not to know. It’s a refreshing day when childhood innocence is anywhere, much less everywhere, and life is so good.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Birth of a Super-Know-It-All

And so it begins. Today I witnessed an event common across the world (or, at least, in those parts of the world where children exist), yet heretofore unseen in my own home. Like a celestial event, it happened in a dizzying flash and marked the dawning of a new era. It was the birth of a new star – the super-know-it-all.

As six-year-old Grace had her arms outstretched, spinning in one spot as if she were a helicopter rotor, she collapsed to the floor in a fit of dizziness, announcing, “The house is spinning.” I replied, “No, it’s not, you were spinning and now it feels like the house is spinning, but it’s really not.” Confidently and matter-of-factly, she said, “No, the house really is spinning.” I debated attempting to explain equilibrium and the inner ear but quickly decided I’d be in over my head after the second sentence of that conversation. I was going to let it go because, as I have learned over the years, sometimes it’s just easier to let someone think they’re right, even when they’re wrong. This is usually the case with children, as well as curmudgeonly old people. But then the unexpected happened. Grace changed tactics on me and came out with, “You know, Mom, the house is spinning because it’s on the earth; and the earth is always spinning.” And so she had me…on a damn technicality, of all things.

The episode shook me, as I realized that this is the beginning of my end. I was immediately brought back to my younger self, circa late-1980s, when I, too, was a smarty-pants know-it-all. I mean, even more so than I am today. The event brought to mind occurred when I was in seventh grade – possibly eighth – so, obviously, I was a frightful mess of pre-teen hormones and sass. The episode in question involved a Teen Beat-generated poster of Billy Hufsey, which I had secured to my locker with magnets. Sure, the school handbook specifically outlawed taping posters to lockers. But I knew the rule and I didn’t have my picture of Billy Hufsey (who was posed in front of a shower stall, wearing only a white towel wrapped around his wet body) taped. As I said, I used magnets and I figured, if an objection ever came up, my magnet vs. tape argument was going to win the case for me, on a brilliant technicality.

One day, Mrs. Parente, while patrolling the halls and searching for wrongdoing, called me out. She told me – in a stern fashion, as I recall – that my towel-clad Billy Hufsey poster needed to come down, as posters were not allowed on locker doors. I politely let her know that the school handbook said nothing was to be taped to the lockers, and that my picture wasn’t taped. Therefore, I smugly told her, I was not in violation of any school rules. Oddly, she didn’t care. She was probably more of a wholesome-Kirk Cameron-fan than a towel-clad-Billy Hufsey fan. She told me to take the poster down, I told her I didn’t have to.

She didn’t see things my way; and the matter got referred to the school principal, Mr. Wally Harris, who, due to a receding hairline, was widely known as Mr. Hairless. He was also known (unfairly, I can say now) by another nickname, which would not be fit to print and was likely completely undeserved. From my safe distance of years and maturity, I would suspect that few people – excluding parents - are as maltreated as middle school teachers. Anyhow, Mr. Harris, who was clearly prejudiced against me because of the siblings who had come before me, didn’t appreciate my argument and would not admit that I was right. Though he never did admit that I had them on a technicality, I am still convinced – 20-plus years later – that I was completely in the right.

I had little recourse but to take the darn picture down. So I did, and then I put it back up, with magnets again, behind my coat. It wasn’t because of my great love of Billy Hufsey, even though he was pretty dreamy in that poster. Sure, I knew the poster was inappropriate in a middle school girl’s locker, but that wasn’t the source of the contention. There was no prohibition against magnets, and that was why the poster went back up. I was just mad that no one would acknowledge the loophole I’d found.

Which is why I acquiesced to Grace’s argument. When you’re right, you’re right, and I wasn’t about to argue with her reasoning. Grace is so much like her dad in so many ways, but today I was so proud – and nervous - as I got that quick glimpse of myself, and that glimpse of what I am going to be up against as the years go by. She’ll probably be a smarter, better version of myself…a Kelly-2.0, though hopefully less stubborn and quick to judgment. Grace’s broad knowledge base (already, despite her status as a kindergartener) and Nadia’s general kick-ass-and-take-names-later-personality have been secretly worrying me for a while now; and I fear it won’t be long before I am dethroned – in a hormonally-charged, violent coup, I fear - as Resident Expert on Most Things. Once Grace, with her cool head and calculating arguments, and Nadia, with her quick temper and disdain for being parented, truly join forces against me and Mike, a new reign of terror will begin. Life around here will probably be a lot like life for a middle-school teacher, albeit without the rest on weekends and summer vacations. Egads.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Superlatives are the Worst

Mike and I went to see Jerry Seinfeld’s live stand-up routine a few months ago in Kansas City. Although we had a great time and laughed until our faces hurt, I refuse to proclaim it as “the best show ever” or “the most amazing experience.” Why, you ask? Because I don't like superlatives, and I really loathe the word “amazing.” Few things are truly amazing, and the word has become so overused that to hear something proclaimed amazing!!! has absolutely no impact any more, since everything under the sun is “amazing.”

If everything is amazing, then nothing truly is. Same with superlatives. People think their spouse is the best, their kids are the best, their dog is the best. It’s all meaningless. I have great kids, and I have a great husband. My cats aren’t really all that great, although I do love them in spite of their scratchy, barfy selves. But to proclaim something as “the best” only sets oneself up for disappointment. I think these grand proclamations are…well, sometimes a superlative is necessary…the worst.

Not to say I’m a comic genius or any such thing, but Jerry Seinfeld totally stole one of my ideas. In his routine, he did an entire bit about how he’s so tired of everything being “the best.” He said, in summary, how you hear all the time about this restaurant, or this store, or that movie, and how they’re “the best,” and “amazing,” and “so great.” And then you try whatever the raved-about thing is, and you discover that…eh….it’s okay. Seinfeld said he’s never out to find “the best,” but that he’s looking for something that’s “not bad.” And that’s all I’m looking for…something that doesn’t suck.

Superlatives are dangerous because they raise expectations and, in my opinion, raised expectations are about as bad for a person as intestinal distress on an airplane. If you think you have the best ____ (fill in the blank), you will be devastated when the ____ does something stupid, gets in trouble, or throws up on your pillow as you’re brushing your teeth for bed. It’s hard to recover when a paragon of excellence breaks your heart. Yet, knowing someone or something is faulty – that there are chinks in even really well-made armor - is one of the greatest often-unrealized secrets of life. Or so says Kelly.

I used to work at a small university. Because I am such an efficient worker, I often had a lot of free time on the job to explore personal interests, like on-line shopping, trip planning, and espousing my opinions to co-workers and some of the students I was friendly with. In hindsight, the students may not have been such a great audience (since many of them were just barely getting by), but I often preached the benefits of lowering expectations in order to be happy, as well as many reasons why embracing mediocrity is underrated.

Low expectations are good for a person for so many reasons. So much of life is completely out of one’s control and recognizing this is so important to achieve personal happiness. The lower one’s expectations are, the easier it is to be happy. If you expect little of the world, you won’t be disappointed if little is received. If you think you deserve so much - because you’re so smart/such a good person/tall/have beautiful penmanship - and then you don’t get it, it will be hard to find goodness in this mightily unfair world. On the other hand, if you expect little, and get little, you will be perfectly happy. And, on those rare occasions when wonderful things happen, it’s so easy to be delighted, since you weren’t expecting anything in the first place. Having low expectations – which goes hand in hand with avoiding superlatives in your life - is a win-win situation. If I get through the day and the whole family is still alive, it’s a good day. And if none of the cats produced a hairball or a meal, it's a really good day.

Embracing mediocrity is all about lowering other people’s expectations of you. This idea isn’t as well received as lowering expectations, but I support my ideas despite any perceived ridiculousness of said ideas. If one is the type of person who ALWAYS does their best, much will be expected of them – at all times. To do a great job will be to do a normal job. To do merely a good job will be a disappointment. Whereas if someone consistently does a sufficient job, the “sufficient” job will be perceived as good, any anything that’s a “good” job will be considered a great job. To be a high achiever is usually a recipe for disaster. To be an average achiever gives one the opportunity to occasionally be brilliant. I support embracing mediocrity because it takes the pressure off. And it’s much easier to please people, and less easy to disappoint them, if you’ve managed to manage their expectations.

Of course, now that I have kids, I frequently hear myself saying crazy things like, “Always try your hardest,” and “Always do your best.” I am curious if I can apply my own lax standards to my kids. But, educating kids and parenting is a lifelong journey, and you can’t spill all the secrets at once. As a parent, I hope to sometimes avoid the superlatives – like wanting the kids to be the best at something, or always knowing what’s “best.” It’s a four-letter word for a reason.

Sometimes I feel like I’m well on my way to writing a best-selling self-help book. But then I realize I’m treading into the waters of superlatives and expectations, when the reality of it all is that I probably need to buy, not write, that book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Feeling Lucky

Sometimes I look at Mike and think, That's one lucky guy. Not only because he's tall, ageless, handsome and has great kids, but because he has an awesome wife. These feelings usually coincide with a move, as I bask in a certain self-satisfaction about what a good sport I am (for being Mike's groupie, following him around to wherever it is he goes), how well-adapted I am (because I can see a sign up the street that says "Give a tasteful gift: Beef" and still manage to laugh about my newest surroundings), and how highly capable I am (to the tune of organizing 16,000+ pounds of belongings in a matter of days).

Sometimes I let Mike know about his vast luck in convincing me to marry him and, to my surprise, he frequently seems to believe me. And it's usually around that realization that I return to my senses and think, That poor guy. He just doesn't know any better. And I continue to hope, on a very regular basis, that he never wisens up and realizes he may have gotten the short end of the non-existent stick.

The Poor Mike sentiment also usually coincides with a move, as well, and this move was no exception. Just the other day, as I was cramming a package of light bulbs into a space almost large enough to hold a package of light bulbs (while Mike watched silently, shaking his head and likely biting through his tongue), I looked at him and laughed and said, "What would your life be like without me?"

If I were to answer that question, I would say that it would be empty - and I am talking about the sheer quantity of things. When we moved in together 12 years ago (though we'd both lived independently beforehand), Mike had a couple of duffle bags - nothing so fancy as suitcases - and a foot locker or two. I came with my own u-Haul. Now, we are up to eight full tons of personal belongings, and I know if I weren't in the picture, Mike would probably have a recliner that doubled as a bed, some Star Wars action figures for company, a box of books and his Rat Olympics trophy. In addition to an "empty" life, he'd likely have a lot less to shake his head at, with no one to force fragile things into places they don't fit. That's what I was expecting him to answer, based on the light bulb scene that had just occured. But, instead, the exchange went like this:

M: My life would be awful without you.
K: No, it wouldn't. You'd have found someone else.
M: Maybe, but it wouldn't have lasted.
K: Sure it would've. Plenty of women would've pursued you and you'd have ended up with one of them.
M: No, I wouldn't. I was meant to marry you.
K: You don't really believe that, do you? That there's only one person for you, and I'm it?
M: Yes. Don't you?
K: Of course not.
M: How many people do you think are for you?
K; Plenty. And there are plenty for you...(long pause, as I notice Mike looking deflated. More headshaking, unrelated to the light bulb incident.) Not that I want you to go out and find any of them, of course...

And this is how I always come to my senses and switch from That's one lucky guy to That poor guy. I have a husband with romantic ideals who believes in fate and destiny and thinks I'm it for him. Poor, poor somehow think that I am the only one in the world for him. That poor, sweet man.

Mike promptly recovered and suggested that I should write spirit-deflating "greeting" cards for an anti-Hallmark. A Kelly-inspired anniversary card might say something like, "You two are still together?!?! Guess I'm out $50. Good luck hanging on another year," or a Kelly-inspired get-well card might say something like, "I don't do prayers but maybe if you clean up your act, your health will follow." There are a few other cards we created that wouldn't sell very well, thanks to my complete lack of romanticized ideas about anything.

I don't believe in fate. Or destiny. Or soul mates. Mike's and my differences abound. For example, he thinks that his hair is "bushy" if it exceeds a quarter-inch in length. I hold no such opinion. I like the electric blanket control to be visible on the floor next to the bed; Mike always tucks the control under the bedskirt, out of sight (after he so kindly preheats my side of the bed). He likes Michael Buble; I do not. Milk is my favorite beverage; he never touches it. To say I love ketchup would be a drastic understatement. I think it should be its own category on the food pyramid. Mike loathes ketchup. Soul mates? I can't believe he thinks so.

Yet we stay married and do just fine, almost all the time. I don't attribute it to anything other than two people actually liking each other and treating each other well, minus the occasional hurt feelings when one of us (usually me) is an insensitive jackass. Though I sometimes look at Mike and think, That's one lucky guy, I know I'm lucky, too. Not just because I'm a good sport, well-adapted, highly capable and have great kids, but because I have a great husband who, fortunately for me, has the romantic idea that I'm the only one in the world for him. That poor guy.