I <3 NJ

And more specifically, the Jersey shore.

As those of you who follow me religiously know, I was down the shore this weekend (which to me is a normal phrase but of course everyone around here has to comment) and while the purpose may have been less than sunny, I still had an AWESOME time.

Herewith, the things I love about the Jersey shore:

  1. The smell!  I know we have the lake here, and the lake is lovely, and it’s really cool to have actual beaches in the middle of the city, but.  Come on people.  It’s not the ocean.  It doesn’t have that salty, briny, slightly sulfurous smell that I associate with summer, fun and everything good in the world.
  2. The ocean.  You look across Lake Michigan, and sure, you can’t see to the other side but you know what’s on the other side.  Michigan.  You can drive to it in a few hours.  On the other side of the ocean is . . . well, literally, it’s Europe, but it’s so far away!  The ocean just feels more majestic.
  3. Waves!  I went out past the breakers this weekend for the first time in a loooooong time and it was marvelous.  I got salt water in my eyes and up my nose and it was fantastic.
  4. My hair looks better by the seaside.  It’s clearly the salt air.  (Or the vast array of hair products and expensive conditioners my mom and my sister have.  But I choose to credit the salt air.)
  5. Airplanes pulling oddly worded and mysteriously abbreviated advertisements for local businesses.
  6. Boardwalk french fries.  Five Guys does a good job, but they’re just not as good.
  7. And pizza!  We didn’t have standard NJ boardwalk pizza because we went to Ocean City, which has Piccini’s, which is awesome.  They do sort of interesting pizzas available in standard and super-odd flavors but the point is, the dough is just the right blend of crispy and chewy with that nice, yeasty flavor and the cheese is gooey and melty and forms long strings when you pull.
  8. And people have heard of and use broccoli rabe, even at relatively cheap pizza places that serve sodas in paper cups and only take cash, at the counter.
  9. When you’re on, say, Route 9, headed south, there are roadside stands with clams on the half shell.
  10. I don’t know where else you get that special blend of trashy – “half-price” flip-flops, shirts celebrating one’s love of getting drunk, hermit crabs – and cutesy – fudge shoppes, bed-and-breakfasts in restored Victorian homes, bicycles built for four – than Cape May, NJ.
  11. Full-service gas stations.
  12. There are rest stops every few feet on the Garden State Parkway.  Especially handy when you have a recently potty-trained two-year-old with you.
  13. The aesthetic.  I think I found the store where Teresa Giudice buys her daughters’ clothes.  It was in the Borgata in Atlantic City and everything was pink and sparkly with a tutu and usually at least one animal print.  The sad thing is, it’s exactly the kind of stuff Zoe would love, and I almost caved and bought her something, even though (as should be obvious to anyone reading this blog), I hate that shit.  But they were super-pricey so I didn’t.  And what did we learn from this?  My values have a price tag.
  14. And in that store (and all around me) I got to hear the accent I know and love.  “That’s fo-ah shoo-ah.”  I love you, random lady in the Teresa Guidice store.
  15. The beautiful herons and the prolific toads around my mom’s shore house deserve special mention.

A fashion note: I’ve finally figured out the point of formal shorts.  They are still an abomination, but I understand why girls find them appealing – they allow you to show just as much leg as those tiny, tiny, tiny miniskirts without the risk of indecent exposure every time you bend ever-so-slightly a knee.  So I guess they are the lesser of two evils.

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Mackie Remembered

I am traveling to New Jersey this weekend.  On the one hand, it will be a fun trip.  We are taking Zoe down the shore for the whole weekend and good God I miss the shore.  I understand that a Cape May/Wildwood outing might be in the offing and I have not been to either of those places in for-freaking-ever, so that is very exciting.  And on Tuesday I will come back with more of how awesome New Jersey, and the Jersey shore specifically, are, and we will have a super-fun post that all of you (I think there might be 25-30 of you now) will enjoy.

But part of the trip is not about fun.  It’s the one-year anniversary of my stepfather’s death.  It still feels inconceivable to me that he is gone.  Sometimes when I’m thinking of him in a roundabout way, that doesn’t have to do directly with the fact that he died last year, I hear his voice in my head – he had a very distinctive way of speaking – and then I have to concentrate, very hard, to remember that I’m only ever going to hear it in my head ever again.

But I don’t want to be morose, and I don’t want to be angry.  It is time to turn away from mourning his death, and turn toward celebrating his life.  (Or at least, it’s time to shift the balance from the former to the latter.)  My husband keeps saying that people don’t really die when we remember them, and when we remember them to our children and to our children’s children.  And as cheesy as that sounds, there are those I feel I know – my great-grandfather, Sam; my mom and dad’s dog Hugo – whom I actually never met.  And I know that, for instance, my husband’s grandparents and my grandmothers will always be known to my daughter because of the way we talk about them, even though she’s never met them.  So when I think about celebrating Mackie’s life, I think about the things I want Zoe to know about him.

1. His name wasn’t Mackie.  His name was James McNaboe.  I started calling him Mackie, I guess, from the moment I met him.  Nobody remembers why – I was only about four at the time – but our best bet is that it has something to do with the song “Jimmy Mack.”

2. I called him Mackie my whole life, but one year, when I was maybe seven, on his Christmas card, I put Macy, not being really sure how to spell “Mackie.”  That kind of stuck and became a constant alternate spelling on all cards and gifts.

3. For a while, my sister, Kate, his daughter, started calling him Mackie in imitation of me (because she was young enough to think I was cool).  He didn’t much like that.

4. When Kate was little, she called an umbrella a “bellello.”  I, in my 12-year-old snottiness, said to her, “You know it’s an umbrella, right?”  She never said “bellello” again.  I don’t think Mackie ever forgave me.

5. He wanted Zoe to call him Pop-Pop.  He even had a t-shirt that said Pop-Pop on it.

See, this is the Pop-Pop shirt.

6.  Of course he had a t-shirt that said Pop-Pop on it.  He had scads of t-shirts.  He had t-shirts from every festival he ever attended (and he attended A LOT of festivals), every beer he ever liked, every vacation he ever took, and every vacation everyone else ever took and brought back for him.  He even had a t-shirt from the hospital where he was being treated for the cancer that killed him.

7. He especially had a lot of free t-shirts (which I should hope the one from the hospital was), and a lot of swag in general.  Swag was one of his favorite things.

8. Although his t-shirt collection is impressive, it’s probably not worth anything to anyone but us.  He has other collections, though, principally (to my mind) records and trucks.  The first thing we bonded over was trucks.  I was maybe three or four when he and my mom started dating.  My mom brought me over to his apartment and he set aside some of his trucks for me to play with, including one he eventually granted to me, a Sea World truck with a little dolphin floating in water in the trailer.  Interestingly, trucks would also bond Zoe and Mackie, albeit posthumously.  After his funeral, we all headed to the shore house, and Zoe took some of the trucks he had there and arranged them very carefully and precisely atop an empty fancy-popcorn tin.  Mom has kept them in Zoe’s design.

9.  When he came over to my mother’s house, before they were married, he would build couch pillow houses for/with me.  Sometimes they were very elaborate, and incorporated the dining room chairs and bar stools into their design.  One time, when we had built a really elaborate one – it had, like, a second floor – I started moving stuff into it when someone accidentally let our dog, Alfie, out of whatever room he’d been sequestered in for the duration of the construction, and Alfie knocked it all over, including the little jar of scented powder I was moving in.  From that day forward, I insisted that the white hairs on Alfie’s nose were not marks of age but reminders of this incident.

10.  Our dog after Alfie, Curly, was extremely the rough-and-tumble type.  And Mackie would rough-and-tumble right along with him, getting down on the floor and rolling around.  And he was 6’2″.  And not an extremely young man.  So let that be an image in your head.

11. To say he was a music aficionado would be to seriously, seriously understate things.  He knew everything about every piece of popular music that came out between, oh, say, 1950 and 1980.  Roughly.  And he was always learning more.  When I was in college, he called me into his office (literally) to listen to a song he thought I might get a kick out of.  I did; I still listen to it all the time.  It’s called “Eighty-Eight Lines about Forty-Four Women” and it’s by The Nails.  It came out in 1984.  He also had me listen, I think during our Christmas visit which would be his last Christmas, to songs by the Texas Tornadoes, which I enjoy pretty well.

12.  His favored styles, however, ran more along the lines of R&B (actual R&B, not regular pop ballads that happen to be sung by black people), Motown, and Doo-Wop.  And he very much enjoyed singing them.  Loudly.  With any audience at all.  And with any provocation at all.  He particularly loved singing songs such as “Come and Go With Me” (to my sister, mostly), or “Chantilly Lace” (because I think he was the Big Bopper in his fantasy life, except without, you know, the dying young in a plane crash), or “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (when dinner was about to be served).

13. The first Christmas that I brought Jason to was also the last Christmas my Grandma Edith – my mother’s mother – would attend.  Jason brought his guitar, and played songs while Mackie and my uncle Jeff sang.  My grandmother, who didn’t usually get along with Mackie, was totally charmed by this.  She said she’d never seen that side of Mackie before.

14. He pretty much worshiped the ground my mother walked on.  They were pretty affectionate with each other, which is interesting, because neither of them are very affectionate or mushy in general.

15. I loved all of the oldies that he played all the time.  At one point in high school I made myself a series of mix tapes (Cassette tapes, for the youngsters in my audience, were what we listened to music on before there were CDs, and mix tapes were what we made before recordable CDs were readily available.  CDs were what we listened to music on before mp3s.) from his Time-Life CD collection that had the hits of each year of the fifties and a lot of the sixties.  One time I was in my car with a boy I was friends with, and this boy liked to think of himself as very sophisticated and an aficionado of things out of the realm of most high schoolers.  So when I put on one of these tapes, he looked at me all flabbergasted, and said, “You’re not old enough to like this music!”  I pointed out to him that a) I was only a year younger than him, and b) I had parents, too.  But I realize that, for these particular tapes, I didn’t have “parents,” I had him.  My mother and father were a little young for this music; through them, I knew The Rolling Stones and The Eagles (my mother), and The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel (my father).  And of course Bob Dylan (both of them).  Mackie taught me about Buddy Holly and Berry Gordy.  So thanks for that, Mackie.

16. He was extremely tender and protective of Zoe.  When we came out for her first Christmas, he gave a literalness to the term “hovering” that I have never seen before.  He would walk around me, his arms in a sort of protective cage that surrounded me and Zoe, whenever we walked outside (where it was icy!  Very icy!) or even up and down the steps in our house.  And he was of course fascinated by her every gesture and mood.

17. He liked to walk around in t-shirts and boxers with his socks pulled up to his knees and loudly drum on his belly.

18. He had a pose he would adopt when he was giving advice.  He would sort of slump and spread in a chair, with his elbows on the arms and his legs apart.  Then he would steeple his fingers and look down, like he was gathering inspiration.  Then he would look up and begin to expound on the topic in question, with lots of sharp, fast hand gestures and a voice – remember I said he had a distinctive speaking style – that would rise in volume very suddenly and then fall back to normal.  Topics ranged from what to look for when buying a condo, to what we should buy Mom for Mother’s Day, to what route we should take to get to wherever we were going.  Even at my sister’s graduation, which was the last time I would really see him, he went into that pose to extoll the virtues of Ocean City vs Wildwood as a place to take Zoe.

19.  Directions were very big in his life.  He liked knowing seventy-two different ways of getting somewhere, and his directions always included information like, “You’ll pass a building on your right that is now abandoned but was a pizza place that one of my college friends used to claim had the best pizza.  I didn’t think much of it.  Before that it was an auto garage that specialized in foreign cars, and before that, it had insurance offices.”

20.  It’s important to remember people for the whole of who they were, not just the good stuff.  My sister and I were pretty pissed off at his funeral, when the priest, who didn’t know him and had already behaved bizarrely and annoyingly in a number of ways, declared that “Jim was a kind man, always with a kind word to say about everyone.”  We said to each other afterwards that if that was true, we never heard any of them.  He always had a sarcastic word to say about everyone.  How you knew he loved you was, he’d say the sarcastic comment TO you, ABOUT someone else.

21.  He had a temper which would explode with a lot of yelling and shaking of the head. But it always banked very quickly and then he would act like nothing had happened.  That was fine with me; I usually like to deal with conflict by acting like nothing happened.

22. Because of his temper, he was on occasion a rather aggressive driver.  But one time we all went to Staples (probably back-t0-school shopping) and when we came out there was a note on the windshield which was yelling at him for being so aggressive and dangerous a driver.  The weird thing was, that particular night, he had not been at all.  He’d been in a good mood, nothing had happened in the car that struck anyone else as an incident.  And yet the note.  Very weird.

23.  But back to the good stuff.  Before he married my mother, he traveled everywhere and he tried everything.  For a man who would barely eat a green vegetable or an unknown spice at home, you’d be surprised to learn that he ate bugs on safari in Africa and shark-fin soup in China.  But he did.

24. This is one of my favorite stories about him.  When we were in San Diego, we went to the San Diego Zoo (naturally) and we read that moose put leaves and moss and grass on their antlers to attract mates.  For the rest of the trip, Mackie kept picking up bits of grass and stuff and putting them behind his ears and going, “Honey!  Honey!  How do you like me now?”

25. My mother and stepfather almost never called each other by their first names (except when speaking to others about each other).  They called each other endearments.  “Dear” was my mother’s term for Mackie, and “Honey” or “Hon” was Mackie’s term for my mother.  Although sometimes when speaking to us she was “Connie-Mommy.” Again, these were two very much non-mushy people.  Sarcasm was/is their default mode.  But then there was this.  (By the way, this is one of the reasons I have trouble with parenting books sometimes.  Because so many of them advise against sarcasm.  And yet sarcasm is what I grew up on!  I think the key is, you can be sarcastic with your kids, but not to your kids.)

26. When he’d call the house and I’d pick up the phone, because I sound exactly like my mother, he’d call me “Hon.”  Then I’d correct him and say it was “Hon, Jr.”  He liked that.

27.  His favorite story about me was that when I was six or seven someone asked me if I were Jewish or Christian, and I said, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I’m a little Christmas-y, too.”

28.  He was very silly.  He would crack me and my sister up at the dinner table or on car trips.  Mom would roll her eyes and look annoyed.  That was because us cracking up was about three seconds from Kate doing something that Mackie would object to, such as waving her hands too close to her juice glass, and then they would fight a bit because, well, Kate comes by her stubborn streak naturally.  But the thing of it is, I don’t even remember what we were laughing over.  He was just silly.

29. Another of his great loves was beer.  We always had a fridge stocked with microbrews from everywhere he went.  (They’re probably still there, as I’m the only other person who’d be inclined to drink them, and I don’t live there.)  When my sister was in first grade or so, someone came to her class to talk about alcoholism and such.  My sister announced loudly to the class that her father drank “beard” and ate corn chips every night, making him sound like an alcoholic, which he wasn’t.  But it made for a good story.

30.  It was not possible for anyone to back out of our driveway without his assistance.  He would stand and watch you and make gestures with his arms.

31. There were certain things in the house that he was in charge of, namely, the mail, and phone messages.  Mail would always be placed at your seat at the dining room table.  He took care to note any especially creative spellings of any of our last names.  (Oh, and he was fond of the fact that a household with four people could have three last names.)  He also loved deals and frequently got me magazine subscriptions for dirt-cheap and surveys which, if I filled them out, I’d get free samples.  (My uncle, my dad’s brother, does the same thing, only with internet savvy.)  If there was a phone message for you, he played it first, and then called you in to his office to hear it, frequently commenting on the nature of the message and the message-leaver.  He was always particularly amused by my stepmother’s phone messages, which could run for several paragraphs, with the only actual content being, “Call me back around 7.”

32. My college graduation was a traumatic day for me (though not as traumatic as Kate’s college graduation turned out to be).  In addition to the leaving-college blues, I got very upset when I realized my dad and my stepmom had fled the premises with my brother immediately after the ceremony, instead of sticking around to talk to me, take pictures with me, etc.  I was really pretty upset and hysterical.  So Mackie took me aside and hugged me for a while.  Just hugged me.  Didn’t say anything, didn’t try to talk me out of being upset or calm me down.  Just hugged.

I hate to end on that note for Kate’s sake and I hope she can forgive me because I know how awful her graduation day was for her, because of Mackie’s extremely advanced illness at that point.  But like I said at the beginning, I want to remember him to Zoe, and that’s definitely one of the moments I want to be alive in her mind about him.  It’s one of the moments that will always be alive in mine.

The Price of Privilege

I had been looking forward to reading The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine for a long time.  I was a tiny bit disappointed.

Mostly, the disappointment is my own fault.  First, I had already read a lot of the points Dr. Levine was making, although, possibly, mostly in books that came after hers.  Her main point is that the “culture of affluence” which encourages measurable achievements at the expense of other ways of growing, is unhealthy for us and for our kids.  Yup, got it.  She talks about prioritizing your emotional needs as a parent.  She even uses that analogy  about the airplane – you know, when they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping your kids or other helpless people nearby?  And that’s like parenting, because you can’t help your kids if you can’t breathe yourself?  I’ve read this in just about every parenting book I’ve read thus far.

Second, and most predictably, I wanted more social analysis, and less private focus, as I always do.  This is another book where I feel like the real question is, “What’s wrong with society?” and the answer is, “Here’s what you should do to make sure your own kids don’t have these problems,” which doesn’t address the real question.

A good portion of the book is spent sort of justifying why we should care about the problems of kids who have so much, financially speaking.  The most interesting point she makes in this direction is that when we look at poverty-stricken kids, we see all these problems, and say, “Oh, it’s because the parents can’t afford to be better parents,” but look, the parents who can afford quite a lot fuck up, too.  I think if she had gone further, here, and discussed how the very models of parenting we have, with which we judge the parenting of poorer parents and find them lacking, are fucked up.  The book is largely about how the focus on achievement is bad for kids, but what do we say is wrong with poorer kids (besides the violence and the crime)?  The fact that they don’t score well on standardized tests, make good grades, get into Harvard.  So if we can agree that scoring well on standardized tests and getting into Harvard are not evidence of well-raised children, maybe we can re-examine our standards of what good parenting is and better respond to actual challenges faced by parents in all economic conditions.  But she doesn’t push it that far, and a lot of the “rich people have problems, too” discussion sounds a little empty.  And I am a person who believes that rich people have problems, too.

She cites studies that show that money has a limited effect on emotional health.  And there have been a lot of them.  At one point in the book (and I’m so mad that I didn’t write down the page number, because I ALWAYS write down page numbers; I am obsessively nerdy even when I’m just writing down stuff for my own amusement), she says, “[O]nce you have enough money to meet basic needs, money does not make you happier.”  Her point is that pushing your kids to become Harvard MBA holders who go into investment banking and make scads and scads of money is not necessarily a good strategy for making your kids happy adults.  But again, I think that sort of glides over what financial security really offers and how one gets it.  Because this is a country with a rapidly disappearing middle class.  There are increasingly fewer ways to make enough money to meet basic needs securely (and, admittedly, there is an expanding definition of basic needs) and the ways one can make enough money are increasingly competitive and time-consuming.  The pressure to put on a happy face, get the best grades by hook or crook, win the tournament, etc., etc., etc.  create exactly the kind of kids who can be successful in the corporate world.  Without acknowledging that the parents who push their kids in this way may in fact be responding to real world conditions, the exhortations not to worry about getting rich ring a little hollow.  And again, I say this as a person who has absolutely no intention of pushing Zoe or any other kids that may or may not come along this way.  I intend to be very much non-pressure-y when it comes to achievements and to help her develop a sense of self above all.  But I’m also going to be honest with her, and honest means saying, hey, getting financial security is hard, and lots of people will be competing with you to get it.

This is not to say that the book didn’t have plenty of good things in it.  I tend to write about the things I didn’t like because I don’t have much to say about those things I did like.  So I’ve decided that from now on, when I write about a book like this, I’ll include a section of things I got from it that I liked.  Here they are:

Gleanings:

– Pressuring your children to achieve certain, public, easily quantifiable benchmarks – good grades, participation in trophy-winning sports teams, etc. – is not a good way to parent.  Your kids need to develop a sense of self and then decide which achievements are important to them.  Your job is to support that process.

– Emotionally healthy parents – especially mothers, where mothers still do the lion’s share of the parenting and the emotional work in a household – are important.  Take care of your own emotional needs so that you can take care of your family’s.  And because your own emotional needs are important in and of themselves.

– Financial comfort isn’t the only kind of comfort there is.  It’s an important one, but it’s possible to have problems even while being financially comfortable, even problems caused by or strongly correlated to being financially comfortable, like, say, marrying a rat bastard and counting yourself lucky to have landed him because he makes bank.  And it’s important to take those problems seriously.

Mistress?

My problem with the Ensign scandal is not that there was cheating involved.  I mean, for the most part, I don’t consider adultery on the part of public figures to be my business. Adultery happens; people screw up.  Sometimes your marriage is a little on the rocks and you have a slip and your spouse can forgive you.  Sometimes your marriage is already about things other than sexual and romantic love, so you can allow for some extramarital sex and romance.  Sometimes, you and your spouse are completely in love and are great together, but s/he has this little problem with his/her pants zipper, and while it might anger you, you still want to be married to him.  I only consider it my business if those public figures have spoken out against other people’s adultery, which Senator Ensign did, during the Clinton scandal, although, to be fair, he hadn’t started his affair with Cynthia Hampton yet, so maybe, when he said it, he was clean.  Or if those public figures have spoken out about how gay people are not moral enough for the sanctity of marriage while being straight adulterers.

But really, so many public figures who have called out other adulterers and objected to same-sex marriage have turned out adulterous themselves (sometimes with same-sex partners) that at this point it’s hardly going to make me bat an eye.

The legal trouble regarding the scandal is mostly going to be about illegal lobbying contracts and the like.  This is also not my main area of concern.  Yes, it’s wrong, and yes, it’s illegal, but I feel like this kind of stuff happens all the time and usually with little done about it.  So while I understand that all the lobbying stuff is shady, unethical, and illegal (and it’s always nice when the things that are unethical are also illegal, and vice versa), my dander is not up about that.

My dander is up because I keep hearing Cynthia Hampton referred to as Senator Ensign’s mistress.  And from everything I’m reading, I’m not sure that’s the word for it.

Here are the facts of what happened:  Cynthia Hampton and Darlene Ensign were best buds in high school and remained best buds.  Cynthia Hampton was a bridesmaid in Darlene and John Ensign’s wedding.  Through the years, the two families were very close.  Eventually, John Ensign encouraged the Hamptons to move from California to Nevada so they could live in the same neighborhood, a neighborhood the Hamptons could ill afford.  So the Ensigns helped them out.  Then the Hampton kids and the Ensign kids wanted to go to school together, because they were all close in age and good friends.  But the Hamptons couldn’t afford the private school the Ensign kids were going to.  So the Ensigns helped them out.  Then Cynthia Hampton worked for Senator Ensign’s campaign, and then his PAC.  Then Senator Ensign essentially created a position for Doug Hampton to work for him, too.  Then there was a break-in in the Hampton home and the Hamptons went to live with the Ensigns for a little while.  That’s when Ensign made his move.  Cynthia said no, several times, but eventually capitulated.  Despite fears about her job, the affair continued.  Doug Hampton discovered the affair on Christmas.  They promised the affair would end and all had Christmas together.  A few months later, it hadn’t ended.  Doug Hampton decided he would no longer work for Senator Ensign. (It’s not clear to me at what point Cynthia Hampton decided she would no longer be working for Senator Ensign.)  Doug Hampton and Senator Ensign decided that Doug Hampton would go work for a lobbying firm (totally illegal!) and that Senator Ensign would set him up with clients (totally illegal!) so that his salary would match what he’d been making while working for Senator Ensign.  When that didn’t happen fast enough for Doug Hampton, Doug Hampton alerted Fox News.  And thus the scandal broke.

Now, I know it takes two to tango, and I know she’s not pressing rape charges, so I suppose at some point, she said “Yes.”  And I guess I can even imagine that maybe part of her wanted to for her own sake.  He was a long-time friend, he’s good-looking, I have to guess he’s charismatic since he got elected to the Senate.  But even if she did feel an attraction at some level, she didn’t really have many options.  Senator Ensign held the financial well-being of her whole family in his hands, and, furthermore, he was completely enmeshed in her life.  Sure, things ended as disastrously as they possibly could have.  But I could imagine that in her head, just saying “Yes” and hoping he’d be satisfied and go away might have seemed like a better idea than quitting her job, telling her husband, telling her best friend, explaining to her kids why she was pulling them out of the school they loved and away from their lives they knew.  I mean, she ended up having to do that anyway.  But no one ever thinks they’re going to get caught.  Even when they are obviously going to get caught.

My point is, I’m not comfortable calling her his mistress.  Mistresses have to be willing.  And while she was not unwilling to the point where I’m totally comfortable calling him a rapist, I think the news media could come up with another way of referring to her.

Meanwhile, her husband is a real piece of work.  First, I think he was encouraging her to take things from the Ensigns, like the tuition payments and the fancy vacations with them, because he was a social climber who liked rubbing elbows with muckety-mucks like the Ensigns.  But even more than that, if it’s true that Cynthia Hampton was able to be coerced into an affair, directly or indirectly, because of Senator Ensign’s financial hold over the family, wouldn’t you, were you her husband, make every effort to not be in a financial bind to him anymore?  Instead of (illegally) taking a job with a lobbying group he arranged (illegally) and then demanding that he (illegally) get you more lucrative contracts?  Even if the affair had been completely consensual with no compromises, and your wife was totally into it and not doing it to maintain the status quo of your family, would you want to continue to be financially dependent on the guy who was fucking your wife?  What’s wrong with you?  And he describes himself as “Christ like” (sic on the lack of hyphen) in his dealings with Senator Ensign post-affair.  Right before demanding more money.  So I guess the one good thing for Cynthia Hampton is that she doesn’t have to be married to this enormous pile of shit anymore.

Thanks to Scott G. for arguing with me about this all week!

Zoeness

It’s been a while so here’s an update of all the awesome stuff Zoe’s been up to lately (and some not so awesome stuff).

1. She’s potty trained!  More or less.  She still can’t hold it for very long, so the car is somewhat hazardous, and she still won’t wake up because she has to pee.  But she is very self-directed about it when near an accessible potty; she just runs into the bathroom and pulls her pants down herself and everything.  She doesn’t really need much reminding.  So good job her!

2. This has destroyed the sleeping-in-her-own-bed thing, though.  She’s back in ours most of the time.  And the other night, I put her in hers with her iPad, then went into my own room to sleep instead of staying up until I knew she was sleeping.  Sure enough, forty-five minutes later, there was a little body flopping on my head and stealing my pillow.  Y’all might think it’s ridiculous that a very tiny two-year-old can make it so that I don’t have enough room to sleep in my bed, but the girl likes to stretch out.  On my pillow.  Horizontally.  And then she likes to kick.

3. She also likes to pretend to be a “tiny baby” a lot.  She likes to be wrapped in something swaddle-y (even though she didn’t much take to being swaddled when she was a tiny baby) and then held in my arms like a baby and then she makes high-pitched cooing noises at me.  Or tries to get me to feed her something from some form of bottle.

4. She also really, really, really likes to play with tiny babies.

5. She’s really honing her flirting abilities.  Last week we went to the park and this little boy was very forward about being her friend.  “Hi, I’m Asher.  Want to play with me?”  Zoe allowed him to “show” her how to slide, even though she knows perfectly well.  Then when he was doing something goofy on the swings, Zoe laughed, batted her eyes at him, tilted her head, and said, “Asher is silly!”  A few days before that, she charmed some, like, 6-year-old boy at this indoor playground place into following her around.  Then she hurt herself, and was totally leaning into him and whimpering pathetically while he put his arm around her and led her back to me.  And at Hebrew School she’s always making high-pitched noises and tilting her head and touching the arms and hair of the fourth and fifth grade boys.  Adolescence is going to be a nightmare, isn’t it?

6. But it’s okay; we’ve selected her prom date.  Our neighbor has a four-year-old son who has already given her her first ride in a car with a boy (it was his Big Wheel or whatever those things are), watched fireworks with her, and is super-solicitous of her every time she visits.  He even poured her a glass of water, unprompted, last time we were there.  Okay, this is mainly cute things about him, not her.

7. This is not awesome – she hits me.  It’s gotten a little better.  I’m following my friend’s advice to stop her arm before she hits and say “I will not let you hit me” and that seems pretty effective.  And she is (usually) very affectionate afterwards, to make up for it.  But it’s still annoying.  Usually she does it while quoting a line from Anastasia, “I don’t want to hear about ANYTHING what (sic) I said!”

8. Uncle Evan came to stay for a few weeks.  She was chomping at the bit to play with him.  She kept stomping around and squealing while we were carrying in his stuff.

9. She is very inquisitive about the television shows and movies she watches.  “What’s George doing?”  “Why did the purple girl (girl wearing a purple garment) hit her?”  “That makes the doggie happy!”

10. She likes to push the shoulder straps of her or my tank tops down and claim we look like Jasmine.

11.  She still likes to make out with me.  And feel me up.

12.  She gets scared of things more easily lately, especially certain toys.  And she retains memories of these fears.  If we talk about going over to our neighbor’s house (where her future prom date lives), she talks about not wanting to be scared by the green dinosaur.  But she’s also dealing with it.  A few days ago another friend was over.  He found the Cylon that came with our Battlestar Galactica boxed set and was playing with it.  Zoe was terrified.  She started shrieking and screaming.  So we got him to hide it in a little suitcase.  Then the next day she started talking about it.  “It’s not a robot, it’s just a guy,” she said.  (I had not said that the day before; I had just told her the robot was not going to hurt her.  And that it was a Cylon.)  Then she took it out of the suitcase.  “It’s just a guy.”  And she played with it for a little while.  Then this morning Jason took it out and started trying to play with it with her.  She started screaming about it and insisting “It’s just a guy, it’s just a guy!”  So Jason stopped calling it a Cylon and she calmed down.

13.  She has a best friend at preschool who, a few months ago, was the girl hitting and kicking and pushing her.  Now she talks about her all the time.  “What color are Celia’s* shoes today, Mom?”  “Oh, that’s Celia’s mommy.  Celia wants to chase me and kiss me!”  I told her teacher about that comment and the teacher said, “Yup, that’s basically what they do together.”

14. But that doesn’t stop her from telling Celia off.  Celia pulled another kid’s hair. (Celia is not malicious, by the way.  Just two and trying to interact.)  Zoe walked right up to her, made eye contact, wagged her finger, and said, “Listen to me.  That is not very nice.”

15. When Harry Met Sally was on so we were watching.  Zoe watched the scene where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm with great interest, and threw in a few guttural “Yes! Yes!” utterances of her own at the end.

16.  She is learning a lot of the Hebrew School songs we sing, as well as the Glee and Disney songs.  I love hearing her bust out a tune in the middle of everything, whether it’s “Ufaratza” or “Fat-Bottomed Girls.”

17.  If you have different opinions on something, she tries to integrate them.  For instance, she pointed to a building and said, “Look, Mom, a castle.”  I said, “It’s a church.”  She said, “Oh, it’s a church castle.”

18. I have become “Mom” most of the time now.  I am a little sad.  I wanted to hold on to “Mama” as long as possible, but that went away quickly and now “Mommy” is less in use, too.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten things but we’ll do this again soon.

*Not her real name.

Clueless v Mean Girls

Before I begin, I would like to report an exchange with Zoe while watching Mean Girls last night.  This happened right after Regina George is hit by a bus.

Zoe: What happened to the black girl? (Zoe identifies people by the color of their clothes; Regina George is wearing a black shirt in that scene.)

Me: She got hit by a bus.  She got hurt.

Zoe: (after a thoughtful look at the screen)  The purple girl (Cady Heron is in a periwinkle top) should kiss her.

Me: Will that make her feel better?

Zoe: Yeah.

Me: That’s a good idea.

Zoe: Yeah.  That’d be great excited.  (pause)  That was not very nice of the bus!

Okay, here’s the actual post.  As promised, I have for you a comparison of the “girl worlds” of Clueless and Mean Girls.  I had promised, in my post about The Curse of the Good Girl to look at Clueless and Mean Girls  as examples of what kinds of stories were told about female friendships when I was a teenager vs. now.  Well, now-ish.  Mean Girls came out in 2004.  But has anything like it come out since?  I don’t think so.  So I will proceed.

For those of you who have been living in a cave for roughly sixteen years (Clueless came out in 1995), I will provide rough plot synopses for each movie.  Clueless is an update of Jane Austen’s Emma, and, speaking as a fan of both, it’s a very good one.  Alicia Silverstone plays Cher Horowitz, L.A. teen queen.  She engages in match-making and makeovers, first for a pair of teachers and next for a new girl at school (Tai, played by the late Brittany Murphy), with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) until she discovers that she herself is totally clueless and then makes over herself and falls in love with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd.  Oh, Paul Rudd.  I don’t care how many Judd Apatow movies you do; you’ll always be Josh to me).

Mean Girls was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes, which covers some of the same material as The Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out.  Tina Fey took the parenting guide about teen girls and made a story of a sixteen-year-old, Cady Heron (Lindsey Lohan, back when she was curvy and redheaded and relatively clean, although still with excessive eye make-up), who has just moved with her zoologist parents from Africa to Evanston, IL and has thus entered an American school and been introduced to American high school culture for the very first time.  She initially is befriended by an outcast type, Janice Ian (Lizzy Caplan – she’s been on my TV screen a few times since then and I squee every time) and her gay male best friend Damian (Daniel Franzese).  They – well, mostly Janice – convince Cady to befriend The Plastics – the teen queens of Evanston – in order to spy on them and make fun of them.  The Plastics are Regina George, Queen of All Bitches (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert, who has been playing a teenager forever, right?), her Number Two, and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), Dumb Slut.  Cady eventually agrees to go even further than that and dethrone Regina when Regina “steals” the boy Cady likes.  In so doing, Cady basically becomes Plastic herself, and then all hell breaks loose, and then all the girls Learn a Very Important Lesson.

The two movies deal with very similar themes.  Both of them involve a new girl entering an unfamiliar social world.  Both of them are very focused on the relationship between female friends.  Both of them deal with teenage girls who are on the top of the social pyramid at their school.  And they were made less than ten years apart.  But the models of normal female friendship they offer are very, very different.

The female friendships, in Clueless, are the ones between Cher and Dionne, and between Cher and Tai and, to a lesser degree, Dionne.  In Mean Girls, they’re the ones between Cady and Janice, and between Regina, Gretchen, and Karen, and, to a lesser degree, Cady.

The friendship between Cher and Dionne is very close and very emotionally supportive.  They certainly snark at each other: “‘Been shopping with Dr. Seuss?’  ‘At least I wouldn’t skin a collie to make my backpack.'”  But in their case, it’s a sign of their extreme closeness, rather than distance-creating meanness.  An exchange can begin snarky: “‘Would you call me selfish?’  ‘No.  Not to your face.'”  But it can end in support, with Dionne blaming Josh (who did call Cher selfish) rather than Cher for Josh’s remarks.  Cher supports Dionne when Dionne’s got boyfriend troubles by echoing her feelings: “He is so possessive.” and by reaffirming her worth.  “You could do so much better.”  Dionne assists with Cher’s schemes to hook up two of their teachers and to make Tai over into a more socially acceptable teenager even though she makes clear that she finds them ridiculous.  Overall, it’s very clear that they consider each other confidantes and allies.

Cher and Tai’s relationship is somewhat more compromised, in that Cher sees her as less than her and is determined to make her over into a more-like-her person, and then gets upset when it works a little too well.  Even with that complication, and Cher’s self-appointed mentoring role, we do see support and closeness between them.  Tai has dinner with Cher and her father and hangs out at her house.  Cher and Dionne both support Tai’s new look (that they created) by pointing out to her how good she looks and how others are noticing how good she looks.  When Tai’s crush object (which Cher and, to a lesser degree, Dionne, created and supported) doesn’t work out, they give her support and take her out to get her mind off of it.  Later, Dionne seeks Tai’s advice on sexual matters, representing that Tai has become a full-fledged member of their group rather than a mentee.

Most significantly, when Cher and Tai fight, they do so in a fairly mild way – Cher makes Tai upset by unintentionally implying she’s too stupid to go out with Josh, and Tai responds by telling her she’s “a virgin who can’t drive” – Cher confronts her directly and immediately without being mean: “That was way harsh, Tai.”  And Tai acknowledges her fault and says they’ll talk “when we’ve mellowed.”  When they do, they are both effusively apologetic and physically affectionate; it’s very easy to believe that it’s a genuine reconciliation.

Mean Girls has very few moments where we can really be convinced of genuine support and love between any of the girls.  The interactions between Cady and Janice are almost entirely about first Janice’s and then their mutual hatred of Regina.  It makes their big fight feel a little false.  When Janice throws her painting at Cady that depicts their friendship, the audience isn’t really sure when such a friendship to inspire the painting happened.  (Okay, maybe it was just me.)

We do see Gretchen and Karen have some genuine moments of friendship.  Karen, for instance, is the only person who catches Gretchen in the trust fall exercises they do toward the end of the movie.  And Cady has a nice moment with Karen where she tells Karen she’s not stupid and encourages her to discuss her abilities.

But that’s really about it.  Regina is never really nice or supportive or loving to anyone and the few moments where she does something nice-ish, it’s at the expense of someone else and usually for an ulterior motive.  For instance, she engineers a telephone call to get a girl away from the boy Gretchen likes.  But it’s a nasty, mean trick on a girl she doesn’t know.  She tells off this same boy for hitting on Cady in a gross and vaguely harassing way, but she does it to defend Gretchen’s interest in him, and to get in a dig at him, not because she has a genuine interest in defending Cady.  And, as Cady learns, even the moments where she seems like she’s being nice (like telling her her bracelet, or some other girl’s skirt, is adorable), she’s lying.  The blown kisses and “love ya”s she throws out are clearly meant sarcastically.  Gretchen and Karen say supportive things to Regina, but they are very clearly supplicants, not friends.  There’s no mutual support.

I thought for a moment that I ought to blame source material for this difference.  Queen Bees and Wannabes is, after all, specifically about the dangers and deficits of female friendships in middle and high school – not because all female friendships are so compromised, but because you don’t need a book to help your kid deal with their awesome best friend with whom they have a great relationship.  But Emma doesn’t have an equivalent of the Dionne character.  Amy Heckerling, Clueless‘s writer and director, created Dionne because having a reigning social queen without a legitimate best friend seemed unrealistic in a contemporary American high school.  In Mean Girls, by contrast, it seems unrealistic to expect that you can find that kind of support and love in a female friendship.

It’s worthwhile, too, to point out the outer social worlds these girls are operating in.  In Clueless, despite being told that Cher and Dionne are at the top of the social ladder, we don’t really see them interacting with the high school at large, and when we do, the interactions mostly seem positive, as when Cher gets a round of applause for being the cause of their grumpy debate teacher’s newfound high spirits.  There is only one “victim” of their bullying, and she gives as good as she gets and is part of their clique.  In Mean Girls, by contrast, being popular means being constantly on view and in public.  When the Plastics are first introduced, Damian declares that if their high school were Us Weekly, those three would always be on the cover.  Later, when Cady becomes part of the group, she voice-overs about how being part of the group feels like being famous, and this notion is backed up by a montage of various people in the high school, including even the principal, reporting what they know of the lives of the Plastics and what they think of them.  The principal even uses the only-found-in-tabloids word “canoodling” to highlight the point.  And we see Regina be mean to more than just her own group, as is mentioned above.  At the big group exercise later, all the people in the room raise their hands when asked if they’ve been personally victimized by Regina George.  The girls in Mean Girls exist very much in public space and are actively and consciously aware of that public space and how they might appear there.  Even the resolutions of most of their fights are about public space.  Regina tells Cady what “everyone is saying” about her; Karen’s big apology is to Gretchen for revealing a secret about her.  The girls in Clueless, by contrast, have their focus elsewhere.  While public space does exist – Cher says she and Dionne are friends because “we both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of us”; Cher begins to grow insecure about her friendship with Tai when public consensus on Tai grows more favorable than public consensus on Cher.

So who cares?  Who cares what two movies about teen girls say about teen girl friendships?  Aren’t teenagers old enough to know that movies aren’t real?

Well, no.  Adults aren’t usually old enough to know, really know, that movies aren’t real.  And why should we be?  We are cultural animals; we ARE the stories we tell about ourselves, both as individuals and as a society.  And Clueless and Mean Girls  were wildly popular movies which both reflected and affected the realities of the teen girls that know them by heart.  (Clueless came out when I was fourteen and just about to enter high school.  I am willing to bet that the majority of women who graduated high school in 1999 as I did can recite the damn thing by heart.  My sister, who is seven years younger than me, says she and her friends can do that with Mean Girls.)  (It should be noted that she herself can do that with Clueless, too, because she had an awesome big sister who took care of her cultural education.  Hi, Kate!)  We saw ourselves in these girls, but we also saw what common expectations were about friendship and the kinds of support we could expect from those closest to us, as well as what we’d need the support for.  And I’m glad I grew up with media that told me I should expect my friends to be supportive and loving to me.

One more thing, sort of anticlimactic, but interesting, I thought.  Each movie has scenes in which the main girl (Cher, Cady) illustrates how she’s going to get her man.  In Cher’s case, she demonstrates her popularity and desirability by sending flowers to herself, eating chocolates (to draw attention to her mouth), and showing skin.  In Cady’s case, she plays dumb, deliberately failing math tests to get the guy she likes to tutor her.  Of course, neither strategy is effective.  Cher was using those wiles on a gay guy, and Cady doesn’t get the guy until she flies her nerd flag, instead.  But it’s interesting.  (Regina gets her guy by saying, “You’re so hot,” and kissing him.  I want to make fun – she was, after all, more interested in putting Cady down than in actually getting that guy – but I think probably telling a guy “You’re so hot” and then kissing him is better than any strategy I’ve ever used.)

Okay, people, I hope you enjoyed my close analysis of pop culture.   We must do it again sometime!  But I promise; the next post will be all Zoe, all the time, okay?

Pirates

A few years ago, I saw this exhibit at the Field Museum that really stuck with me. The exhibit focused on one ship, the Wydah, which is, according to the Field Museum, the first fully authenticated pirate ship to be discovered in U.S. waters.  There’s a whole romantic story about how its captain had started life as a poor Irish(?) boy and then came to America and met a beautiful girl whose family was not impressed with him, so he went into piracy to make his fortune, and did make his fortune, and was on his way back to her when his ship wrecked off Cape Cod.  Then it was found by this guy Barry Clifford, who grew up on stories of these particular pirates and lived in the area and became an underwater explorer with the specific hope of finding this particular ship.

The ship started life as a slave-trading ship and then was captured and became a pirate ship.  (Unfortunately, it was captured after the slaves had mostly already been dropped off.  I know.  I was disappointed about that part of the story, too.) It was a very big deal find because, despite lore, there really isn’t a whole lot of buried treasure or shipwrecks in decent and accessible condition out there. The treasure, for instance, wasn’t usually buried so much as it was spent on whores and drinking the minute the pirate crew got to port.

The exhibit told the story of that particular ship, but also told the story of how pirates in pirate-heyday generally operated. And one of the things that struck me was that pirates were actually sort of decent human beings, generally by far more decent to their crews than merchant ships or British Navy ships would be. Of course, that’s grading on a pretty steep curve – the British Navy had no problem with kidnapping people off the streets of London and enslaving them on their ships and then not even providing enough sustenance for them to survive. European trading vessels routinely, deliberately, planned not to have enough food for the whole crew for the whole journey, because, after all, the ship would go faster once you threw the dead bodies overboard on the way back. So “better” is relative.

But in some ways, being a member of a pirate crew was a pretty good gig. I mean, sure, it was dangerous and involved sometimes killing people. But apparently the general M.O. for pirates when they took a ship was to first ask the crew if the captain was a decent person. If the crew said no, they killed the captain. (But if the crew said no, he’d probably been starving his crew, beating them for minor infractions, etc.) Then they’d ask the crew if they wanted to join up, or if they wanted to be taken to the next port and dropped off there. And then the pirates would honor their requests. (Unless you were the ship’s doctor, or had some other very valuable skill. Then they needed you too badly to let you go.) If the captain was nice enough not to warrant killing, he would either be dropped off at the next port with whatever of his crew wanted to stay with him, or he would be given the least of the pirate fleet’s ships (which now included that captain’s ship) to sail away in. Not bad. And not as vengeful and needlessly violent as we imagine pirates to be.

Then, if you were part of the pirate crew, life was still pretty good. Your captain would not beat you or steal from you or starve you. You were guaranteed healthcare (as long as the ship had a doctor).  You an equal vote – equal even with the captain – in terms of who should be officers and where you should go and which ships you should attack, and any member of the crew had the chance to become an officer.  It was an equal-opportunity kind of place, with Africans, Native Americans, and even women as members of crews.  And each crew member got exactly one share of the loot. The captain got share x 2, as did the quartermaster.  Other officers got share-and-a-half or share-and-a-fourth. If you were seriously injured in the fight to get that loot, you got share-and-a-half or share-and-a-fourth.  Try that at the East India Company.

Or try it here.  Can you imagine a corporate America where all employees were also roughly equal stock holders, where the CEO only made twice what everyone else made?  Hell, let’s imagine a corporate America where the CEO gets, say, 20 shares, and then the number of shares moves on down from there, so that even the lowest-paid worker got 1/20th what the CEO got.  That would be awesome.  That would mean a very strong middle class.  And still a pretty strong upper class.

I know, I know.  I’m becoming a pinko-liberal socialist.  I thought people got more conservative with age; I seem to be going through the opposite phenomenon.  Please excuse me.