Sunday, December 19, 2010

Crazy Making (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

‘Tis the season, and I find myself imagining what the holidays will be like for today’s teens when they are, say, my age.

Here’s what I envision: A holiday office party in the not-too-distant future, let’s say 2042. Everyone at the party graduated from high school in 2011. Colleagues mingle, but all have brought spouses/dates, so introductions are also happening. Let’s listen in.

Sally: Dick, I’d like to introduce you to Jane, Tom’s wife. 780, 710, 740.

Dick: Hi, Jane, it’s great to finally meet you! Wow, guess that’s how you connected with an [elite college] guy like Tom. But that 710 … what happened?

Jane: Yeah, that was the writing portion, but I scored 12 on the essay and won a national cross stitching contest, so [elite college] gave me the benefit of the doubt. What about you?

Dick: 650, 690, 680.

Jane: I’m sorry, Dick. How’s it been?

Dick: (chuckles) A few bumps in the road but for the most part, Life’s Been Good. A sports tip, plus that 5 I got on the European History AP got me into [different elite college] Early Decision, where I met my first wife.

Jane: First?

Dick: A trust fund baby and three-generation legacy. Her family built the IMAX theater for the film department, among other things.

Jane: Let me guess … she didn’t break 2100?

Dick: (laughing) Are you kidding? 1980. We lasted three years. Ah well, live and learn.

Jane: For sure. Did you remarry?

Dick: (nodding and gesturing toward a woman across the room) Yes indeed, that’s her standing by the punch bowl. 760, 750, 790. Early Action to [Ivy League University]. National Merit Scholar and captain of her high school sky diving team. I tell you Jane, she’s a keeper.

Jane: Children?

Dick: Three. 740, 730, 770 and 740, 740 … 800. We were pretty damn pleased about that. Our youngest hasn’t taken the SAT yet.

Jane: Good luck with that! But I’m sure #3 is taking a prep course and you’ve lined up a private college counselor?

Dick: Obvi. Plus, we’ve flown all our kids to global hot spots to perform community service and participate in international peace negotiations for a week each summer.

Jane: So we’re talkin’ Ivies?

Dick: Jane. You need to ask?

I guess you can tell by now the “season” I’m referring to has nothing to do with holly, ivy, menorahs or Kwanzaa candles. It’s the season of decisions, and colleges are releasing their first wave of rejections and acceptances to high school seniors who applied for admittance to the Class of 2015.

Isn’t it exciting? Isn’t it thrilling? Okay, so a few kids are probably a little nervous right now, and there will definitely be a modicum of disappointment in the air, but let’s face it: this is by far the most important event in a young life. Where You Go To College determines everything: who you’ll marry, your income level, your future job … hell, your employee-based health care benefits and hence your life expectancy! Young people choosing a college today know they need to ask themselves: “How long do I want to live?”

That’s why those activities, those standardized tests, that class rank and those varsity letters earned during the high school years are so crucial. Kids today understand that happiness and future success depend on an outstanding transcript, while relationships and leisure time can always be deferred. They understand that less important than the type of car one drives is the college sticker on the back window of that car. They understand that the type of work one does simply doesn’t matter if, at any given social gathering for the rest of your life you can mention your SAT scores and the name of your college.

Teens today know that the alma mater is Life’s Trump Card, and even if they wind up behind bars, people will respect and admire them once they learn they graduated from an elite college or university.

It’s all so different from when I was a growing up. Back then, Sally, Dick and Jane played with their dog, Spot, and didn’t do much else since they only had three channels on the television and no X-Box. How boring! A life spent playing outside, building forts, and riding bikes with the neighborhood kids. Sports were “pick up,” and loosely organized by the older kids, so no regional travel teams with spiffy uniforms. No summer math enrichment, no cello camp, no foreign language camp. Kids had to make their own fun, and adults generally weren’t watching, which is a frightening thought because goodness knows what unsupervised children will do. I remember countless hours at a neighbor’s home, jumping on a trampoline that had no safety walls (imagine!!) and talking, talking, talking with all the other kids.

When I think of how much higher my own SAT scores might have been if I’d spent those hours taking practice tests!

There’s a documentary making the rounds right now called “The Road to Nowhere,” and it deals with this phenomenon of getting into college today. I haven’t seen it yet, but friends tell me I must. From what I hear, the teens it portrays will very likely resemble the attendees at the 2042 holiday party I described above. I'd love to know if anyone else out there has seen it?

Happy Holidays! This blog is on vacation until 2011.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Losing it in Holy Places

I want to enjoy the holidays, I really do, but despite my best efforts to avoid commercialism, take extra Vitamin D (there is no light in Maine this time of year) and focus on the spiritual, I still manage to wind up being a completely stressed-out-woman-of-a-certain-age. Which is not attractive.

I know serene women (two) and I want to be one of them. They always greet me with these calm, centered smiles, usually as I’m blasting through the grocery store in a caffeine-fueled frenzy. They seem to float above the fray, yet accomplish all the important things. Their children adore them … I once bumped into the son of a Serene Woman, out buying a single red rose for his mother because he had just driven home from college and wanted to surprise her (take note, Dude) … and their husbands worship at their altars. Thank you, thank you! their actions imply, for being kind and steady and serene!

This is so not me, especially this time of year. And I know it’s my own fault.

Fact: I don’t keep it simple. For example, I string real cranberries and popcorn to decorate the tree every year. Yup. A couple dozen yards worth. It’s our Annual Torture Tradition, and leads to family conflict. “Inept” would be a good word to describe the spouse’s skills with a needle and thread, and the obscenities which fly as he tries to spear popcorn without crumbling it into bits are … not in keeping with the spirit of the season. The Dude has notoriously bad fine motor skills, so he’s only good for a couple feet of cranberries. Luckily, the daughter is a stringing machine, so she helps me get it done.

She’s also a cookie-baking machine, which is good because I bake way too many cookies. We like to give cookies as gifts, and one of my favorite things to do each season is have a pack of women over for wine, high-fat snacks, and platters of cookies, but for some reason I’ve got 10 recipes I love and absolutely have to make every one of them. One year I simply couldn’t face the labor-intensive spritz Christmas wreath cookie recipe I got from Martha Stewart Living (each wreath has its own “ribbon” sliced from candied cherries) and when I put out the nine varieties I’d made the family sniffed, “Where are the wreaths?” I should have hung up my spurs as Santa’s Little Baker right then and there, but instead I anguished, “I know! I know! Something’s missing!”

Here’s my theme melody for Christmas. Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” What you deserve, what you deserve, you get what you deserve …

One year, things got particularly bad. And it wasn’t even Christmas. It was pre-Christmas, the run up to the season and the holiday shopping ads were already airing on television: late October. Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, and All Saint’s Day at our church all coincided that year to create a perfect storm.

My young children each required three costume changes that weekend. They needed Halloween costumes, then they needed pirate’s costumes (for a Halloween event at the Maine Maritime Museum; don’t ask …) then they needed Saint Suits. For All Saint’s Day, each child was to choose a saint and dress like him/her for mass. Our son (yet to become The Dude) chose to be St. Anthony, so I found myself madly stitching together a burlap tunic for him.

When I dropped him off early at church we saw all the other kids arriving in their saint outfits, which looked a lot like hasty riffs on the previous evening’s Halloween costumes. There were a few “Marys” with headdresses and princess gowns. Some “Josephs” in black Ninja suits wielding Sears Craftsmen hammers (you will recall that Joseph was a carpenter) and then … two boys strutting in carrying light sabers. My son’s face fell; my blood pressure rose. An intervention was looming, and I didn’t have time for an intervention because we were hosting a birthday party after mass.

“Luke Skywalker was not a saint,” I remarked. He hung his head.

“I look like a dork,” he said. I kept walking quickly into the building, leading him by the hand.

“You look like a third century hermit,” I replied. “Trust me; St. Anthony wore burlap.” He shook his head.

“I want to go home,” he said. We were in the building at this point. I needed to drop him off and race home to accomplish a few more things before racing back to actually attend the service.

“You have to stay here. You have to be St. Anthony. By the way, steer clear of Tom Riley over there. I don’t like what he’s doing with that hammer ….” He shook his head again and started walking back toward the parking lot.

“My outfit is dumb,” he mumbled. I held him by the shoulders. I bent down and spoke into his face. In retrospect I realize I should’ve just driven him home and abandoned this crazy scene, but instead, I snapped.

“Son,” I said, “Shut the F *** up.” His eyes widened.

Yes, reader, I said it. The “F” word, right there in the narthex of the Catholic Church. Oh, so far from serenity at that moment, I lost it in a holy place with my cute boy. I didn’t raise my voice, but the word, dropped in that moment, made it perfectly clear to Little St. Anthony that he needed to buck up and join the crew in the all-purpose room or his mother would spontaneously combust.

I didn’t want to be that woman, but, there it was. Crazed, over-the-top madness, trying to do the right thing but getting it all so wrong. Granted, we laugh about it now, and it all turned out fine at the time (the kids were pretty cute, filing into church singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”) but as I gear up for yet another happy holiday season, that weekend and that moment remain a cautionary tale.

Serenity, where art thou? Not, I suspect, within the pages of Martha Stewart Living. Nor at the bottom of three bags of cranberries. But I’m looking for you, so I suppose that’s a start … ?