Monday, December 30, 2013

I Don’t Want to Be Choosy

Some of the men's part of the deodorant
aisle in my local supermarket.
My husband asked me to get him some deodorant at the grocery store. He said he liked the kind he had.

But when I got to the store – and to the entire aisle devoted to deodorant – I couldn’t find that kind.

I texted him, “So, what do you want in a deodorant?”

And since that seemed kind of nutty, I texted him a picture of the ridiculous wall of choices I was facing.

Did he want it to be a deodorant, an antiperspirant or both? A solid, a gel, a roll-on? Did he want to smell sporty or “shower fresh” or like a spring rain or like Old Spice? Did he want to go cheap or expensive?

I don’t want to think this hard about every item I throw in my shopping cart.

Nor do I want to contemplate all the little cryptic symbols on my camera when I take a picture. The camera came with not one, but two, books and also a “quick start” guide, just to explain those symbols. Guess what? I don’t use any of them.

That used to be the beauty of Apple products and also of a little video camera, the Flip, I bought for my kids several years ago. Someone (else) thought about what you might actually use and provided just that. The Flip has one big red button on it to push when you want to record.

I once interviewed a retailing expert about wine. Would you rather go online, he said, where you can get any wine ever made, and try to find your way, or would you rather go to a wine shop, where the selection has been “curated” for you?

The expert said the pendulum was swinging back, to less choice but more thoughtful choice.

OK by me.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cave Versus Museum

Image from the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Recently, I saw “The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

I was struck by the difference between how curators experience the world and how artists, including these ancient ones, do.

The docent said, “You can see a horse's head in the body of this bison. We do not know why they painted the bison over the horse.”
 
Maybe, simply, because they didn’t like how the horse was coming out?

The exhibit had videos of how these Cro-Magnon people made their arrowheads and bone needles. But the videos depicted someone someplace warm and dry, with clean hands and fingernails, with his implements arrayed in front of him in the golden light of some idealized fire, quietly doing his work.

But Cro-Magnon people most likely lived outside, wrapped in animal skins against the winter cold, huddled near a smoky fire, living together in a noisy, dirty, chaotic group.

Every mark made in Lascaux has been pondered. According to Wikipedia, “Applying the iconographic method of analysis to the Lascaux paintings (studying position, direction and size of the figures; organization of the composition; painting technique; distribution of the color planes; research of the image center), Thérèse Guiot-Houdart attempted to comprehend the symbolic function of the animals, to identify the theme of each image and finally to reconstitute the canvas of the myth illustrated on the rock walls ….”

But ancient painters often had to crawl on their bellies through narrow tunnels to get to their caves and the first time the Lascaux paintings were seen with full lighting was when they were photographed in 1947. The artists themselves only saw them by the flickering flames they held in their hands.

Artists are the ones who crawl down into the dark. It’s people with a totally different mindset who shine a light on what’s been done.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Getting Taken

A guy selling magazines caught me out in my yard.

He was, clearly, part of a magazine crew – which, as this New York Times article reports, are bad outfits, particularly to the young people who work for them.

My guy was very much like this guy (who these people brilliantly managed to film). (How were they so quick with the camera?)

My guy also talked at triple speed. He also was black and spewed stereotypes: that he likes fried chicken, that he drinks Kool-Aid (I didn’t even know that was one), that he grew up in “the hood.”

What’s up with that? I guess it’s meant to make me, the white “Jones” (as we marks are called), so uncomfortable that I will give him money.
 
This guy told me so much in a few minutes, all of it, I’m assuming, lies. He told me he grew up in Chicago (he even named the neighborhood, which I didn’t quite catch). He told me he now lived in Utah, flashing a driver’s license at me. He said he was going to college (didn’t quite catch the name of that either), where he was majoring in “public speaking.” He told me he had, at age 20, a three-year-old daughter.

I gave him money.

Why?

Short answer: I’m an idiot.

Longer answer: It’s Christmas, I’ve been giving people gifts and money for weeks. I felt bad for him, even as he was playing me for a fool. I didn’t want a confrontation; I wanted him gone.

At least I knew not to buy anything from him. I gave him money, which he seamlessly said he wasn’t taking – couldn’t take –  for himself, that it would go for magazines for “needy children.” (Again, I didn’t catch the particulars.)

Makes me feel crappy.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Here's Our Christmas Tree


Such as it is.

So, Christmas has not been working out quite as planned.

We should be in Connecticut, with family, but two days before we were due to leave, two of us came down with the flu, and we had to cancel.

Then, by the time we got it together to get a tree here, there were none for sale.

What’s up with that? No Christmas trees available on December 23rd? I distinctly remember, when I was growing up, that some families did not put their tree up until Christmas Eve . . .

So, here’s the little fake tree we had in the closet.

Maybe I am still feverish, but I think it's kind of sweet, actually.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pocketbook Paintings


© Diane Ursin
Though Mom's not usually a glitter person,
she did this for an ACEO contest
with the theme "All that Glitters."
When you think “art collector,” what springs to mind?

Someone vastly wealthy?

But it is possible to collect original works of art the way a kid collects trading cards.

As explained in this book, artists have long made miniature examples of their works. Back before images could be reproduced by technology, they would make small pictures to give potential buyers, sort of like a business card, or to trade with each other, so they could study each other’s styles. Buyers liked these “pocketbook paintings” so much, they began requesting ones of their families and friends so they could carry them with them, much the same as people used to carry snapshots in their wallets.

In 1997, a Swiss artist named M. Vanci Stirnemann made 1,200 card-sized pieces of art for a show – and at the end of it, invited people to make their own and trade with him. Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) were born. The idea behind these cards, which are the same size as kids’ trading cards (2 ½” by 3 ½”), is that their creators trade them amongst themselves – trade, not sell – preferably in person.

In 2004, an artist named Lisa Luree established a new kind of art card on eBay, one that could be sold. She called these Artists Cards Editions and Originals (ACEOs) to keep the difference between them and ATCs clear.

Now, not only are there thousands of ACEOs for sale on eBay (full disclosure: my mom, Diane Ursin, does ACEO cards as well as other artwork), but artist groups, such as the Nibblefest Art Contest (NFAC), stage regular contests, for ACEOs and other-sized artwork. A theme is declared – “All that Glitters,” “Sweet as Sugar” or “Giraffes” – and the artists get to work on their entries, submitting them by putting the cards for sale on eBay (starting price: 99 cents).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

An F for Flirting

It is painful to watch teenagers flirt.

It’s painful to watch them interact, period. I’m not sure how teachers stand it. When I am with a group of kids, there are always at least a couple of them spouting the most painful and embarrassing lines of bullshit you can possibly imagine. I am nice and pleasant, I nod, smile and encourage – they are children, after all – but inside my head I am screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! For the love of God, stop talking!”

And the worst is when they are trying to flirt with each other.

They often insult each other without realizing it. Even when they are trying to tease, they lack the finesse to keep the teasing playful. Sometimes, they go way too far. Sometimes, they take offense when none was meant. Everything comes to a screeching halt.

They can’t decide whether they like each other or not. In fact, if they think the other one likes them back, they may very well decide they don’t like that person after all.

They just consider each other trophies. Girls in particular want a boyfriend to show that they have been “chosen.” One of my daughter’s friends started dating a boy but was dismayed to discover that he wanted to talk. (Eww.)

They don’t ask each other out on dates. They don’t go to movies or hang out at each other’s houses. Some only see each other at school; others only know each other online.

They are inordinately concerned with what their friends think of who they like – even though their friends are clearly just as insecure, competitive and squirrelly as they are.

It’s a wonder the human race reproduces.

Were we as bad as this?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Art of Growing Up

Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

He also said, interestingly, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.

Interesting because of the theories and observations (summed up nicely here) about why children draw the way they do.

Around 18 months, toddlers love to scribble. They don’t have good control of the crayons they are clutching in their fat little fists, but they will sometimes discover, with great pleasure, that the scribble they just made looks like something.

When they start intentionally drawing, around ages 2 to 4, one of the first things kids will draw are people, except the people won’t have torsos. A person will just be a big round head with arms and legs sticking out, which is sometimes referred to as a “tadpole figure.” Some theorize that it’s not that young children don’t see how a body really looks but that they draw only the parts most important to them: the head and face, which are oversized, also, all ten fingers and the belly button.

Between 5 and 8, kids begin to draw objects according to “schema.” Basically, they develop one way to draw a house, for example, and that’s the way they draw it in every picture.

Things start getting sad around age 9. Kids, who start trying to draw realistically around this age, will, at the same time, become very critical of their own drawings. They start worrying what others think and that their drawings don’t “measure up.” Most people stop drawing at this point.

Picasso also said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Monday, December 16, 2013

On Not Aging Gracefully


This is not me.
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I really hadn’t given that much thought to aging, until a kid waiting on me in a store the other day
asked if the candy I was buying was for my grandchildren.

I almost grabbed him by the throat.

When I told one of my New York friends, he archly asked, “Would it be really bad if I said that's because you're in Texas and he just meant you look 24?”

He has a point. Aging has changed.

People used to reach a certain age – and it was young, 30 or 40 – and they’d make the switch to “being old.” Their clothes, their haircuts, their glasses would all scream, “Old.” Just take a look at old family photos.

As I write this, at the age of 48, I am wearing sneakers, jeans, a hoody and a Sex Pistols t-shirt.

And people did become grandparents at younger ages, since they became parents at younger ages. Having my daughter at 30 (admittedly in Manhattan) made me one of the younger moms in her class. And even in my son’s class (had him when I was 34), I was merely average.

Also, people are much more likely now to dye their gray hair. By the age of 50, it is common for half of a person’s hair to be grayif they’re not dyeing it. But now, you don’t see it.

On the other hand, almost 70% of all adult Americans are overweight or obese. That makes people look – and move – as if they're older.

This would all be very confusing – if I thought about it. But I’d rather not. I’d rather just go by the age in my head (11) and I’d thank people, like the kid in the store, not to set me straight.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Party Games Suck

Image courtesy of Ambro
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Here, for example, are some of the worst ideas ever:

This website suggests that for a fun Christmas party game, you wrap people in toilet paper and pretend they are snowmen.

And this blog suggests mixing a bunch of safety pins into a bowl of rice and making blindfolded guests see how many pins they can pick out in 30 seconds. (Hey, I know! Make it even more fun by opening the safety pins and letting them stick themselves.) The author enthuses, “This game is sure to get competitive as each player tries to outdo the others!”

Either that or they fight to get out the door the quickest.

And could someone please explain to me how 1,000 Blank White Cards is even a game?

I have been to parties where guests are forced to play games like these. I’ve even been to parties where the hosts insisted guests play but refused to play themselves. Wow. Just wow.

I suppose, though, that party games can serve a purpose. They might be useful at parties, like company parties, where people don’t know each other. If you really think your guests are going to be clods and just stare at each other, it might be good to come up with things they can interact over. I like the idea of letting people write down their guesses about the number of candies in a jar, with the winner getting the jar. I have also been to fun parties where guests trimmed the Christmas tree.

If you have to have a party game, I think the keys are not to force people to play, not to make the game embarrassing and not to make it something that demands everyone’s full attention.

Better yet, though, don’t do party games at all.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Shhh!

Image courtesy of photostock
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Perhaps I am just being perverse, but I like being secretive. 

Some secrets are toxic and bad and unhealthy, of course. The ones that you are forced to keep. A gay person who’s in the closet out of fear, for example.

On the other hand, when you’re choosing, there are some real advantages to having secrets.

That’s why it’s a recurring motif in super-hero stories. They all lead double lives: the everyday one and the one being … well … Superman.

Not everybody has to know everything all the time.

What are the advantages?

Writers often say that you should never talk about what you are writing because that telling – that off-the-cuff, ephemeral telling -- becomes the telling and you never get around to writing it. Every time you tell a version of a story, it loses power.

I have two friends. When Friend A decides to try something new, she tells everyone all about it. In fact, I think she expends so much energy in the telling, there’s none left for the doing. Because more often than not, she doesn’t get around to the doing. For instance, if she wanted to learn tae kwon do, she’d tell everyone, then never get herself to a lesson. Friend B never says a word about what she’s planning. If she decided to do tae kwon do, the first you would hear of it would be when she mentioned off-handedly that she’s a triple black belt. See the difference?

Of course, when you don’t continually trumpet your existence to the world, you might end up being like the kid who runs off and hides and no one comes looking for him.

Since I like hiding, I’ll take the risk.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Conversant Are You?

That we can use spoken language, the sounds of which are so close to one another and come at us so fast – I read somewhere that the difference between a “t” and a “d” sound is about 1/40,000 of a second – is a miracle all by itself.

And when we use that spoken language in a conversation, our brains are also paying attention to body language, facial expression, tone of voice, social mores and etiquette.  And we're both listening and formulating our own thoughts (both ones we express and ones we don’t) at the same time. There is a lot involved.

No wonder we fuck it up so often.

According to this article, humans have been writing about how to be a good conversationalist for thousands of years – and the tips from Cicero in 44 BC aren’t different from the tips in a how-to book written today.

That’s because it isn’t hard to know what you’re supposed to do. It’s just exceedingly difficult to do it.

You have to be quick.

You have to be confident to let the conversation go the way it will, something the author of this list of “conversation starters” clearly doesn’t get.

And you have to be confident enough to be more interested in the other person than in yourself. Many people simply boast. This is so common, there’s actually a term for it: “conversational narcissim.” I often talk to people who, even though you’re trying to ask them questions to let them talk about themselves, are so busy tooting their own horns, they mishear what you asked. And since their boasts are often of the “you suck, I’m great” variety, it’s really not fun, anyway.

Sad, really, because even the most boastful person is looking for the connection with another that conversation brings.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Silly Old Bear

Around our house, if you are being ridiculously pessimistic, you’re Eeyore, if you’re being a scaredy cat, you’re Piglet (pronounced, “P-p-p-piglet”) and if you’re being all happy and excitable, you’re Tigger.

We are not alone in this. Lots of people have noticed that the different characters of Winnie the Pooh are representative of different personalities or outlooks, though there is a distinct tendency, if my quick Google search can be depended upon (which found this and this and this and this), for people to say, not just that the characters represent different human tendencies, but that they have different disorders. Eeyore is depressed, Piglet has anxiety disorder, Tigger has ADD, Rabbit has OCD and even Christopher Robin is schizophrenic. (Come on, people, in the story, he’s a small boy playing with his stuffed animals, though later on, as an adult in real life, he did seem to be a bit of a curmudgeon.)

Why does everything, even Winnie the Pooh characters, have to be pathologized?

About 15 years ago, I went to see a lecture by an expert on children with learning differences. At the start of his talk, he joked, “Once you know about learning differences, you will see them everywhere.”

It’s TRUE.

The people who talk a million miles an hour, don’t define their terms or identify the person they are talking about, they just expect you to know, they are having trouble with pragmatics or the social use of language.

Jittery people, tapping their feet, drumming on desktops, who clearly have no patience for lectures or books, who need to get out and be doing something, they have issues with attention.

We’re not “disordered” or “damaged.” We’re just all, at some level, silly, "imperfect," idiosyncratic, different.
 
Maybe we should just embrace it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A- to Infinity

During my junior year abroad, I had a (British) professor who had never given grades, but my college had asked him to.

He had fun with it. On one of my papers, he had scrawled “A- - - - - - (to ∞)” and then “So close, but not quite.”

Story of my life.

I had an A- average in college over all. Not terrible. Pretty good, really. But not perfect.

Having children is an educational experience. You get to see stuff you went through, from an outside (though loving) perspective. Though, my children, in high school, are running a gauntlet of grading and testing and assessment and judging that didn’t exist when I was their age. Of course, it’s not just educators (and in my daughter’s case currently, college-admissions people) who are assessing and judging, their peers do as well.

I tell my kids, “Don’t turn the power to judge your worth over to anyone else” – not to the art instructor who doesn’t understand graffiti, not to the English teacher who decrees that you cannot use linking verbs or she will mark you off. (What the hell?) Take what they can teach you and move on.

I can see, now, that so many high-school kids see their world as one big competition. Some – bless them – are mature enough to give someone else a compliment or some support. But others cannot. Too insecure. Those catty, gossipy girls, I try to tell my daughter, the reason they attack you is they feel threatened; you could try taking that as a kind of compliment.

Of course, she can’t. I can’t either.

Sometimes you’d just like a yardstick to tell how you’re doing.

But there really isn’t a true one.  And nothing you do will ever be perfect or universally liked. Just keep going.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

what a surprise :(


© Diana Thomson
I could tell my husband exactly what I want for Christmas.

I could even email him the links to the Amazon pages.

Ba da bing, ba da boom, he’d be done.

But I can’t.

Because if I do, he won’t get it for me … it wouldn’t be a surprise, then, he says.

I don’t want a surprise; I want what I want.

(For the record, I’d like an espresso machine.)

My son, age 14, gets where I am coming from. When I asked him what he wants for Christmas, he asked if he could just get the equivalent in cash.

I talked to a woman today whose teenaged sons say the same thing, but, she said, “There’s no way I’m telling their grandma that.” Even though this grandma buys a 16-year-old boy toys and sweaters.

I think teenaged boys, in particular, because they have so little control over things, really relish the opportunity to get exactly what they want. And the 16-year-old whose Grandma gives him a scooter must really feel frustrated.

For some reason, people feel better giving a gift card rather than cold, hard cash. Less crass, perhaps. But for the illusion that you put some effort and thought into the gift, you limit the recipient to buying from just one retailer. Or, for a universally accepted gift card, you can pay a fee at your bank but, then, that’s money your recipient or you could have spent on something else. And that just hurts my flinty Yankee soul.

I confess, however, that I’m not just going to hand my son cash on Christmas (though he’ll get that too), because there are things that I think he’ll like, even if he doesn’t think so yet himself.

Here’s hoping they’re pleasant surprises.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

May I Never Be Grouchy About Halloween


Halloween is my husband’s favorite holiday; he likes it even more than Christmas. I’m a Christmas girl, but Halloween is a close second. I have a nephew, an adult, who goes to great lengths with his Halloween costumes. One year, he shaved his head for it. My own son, age 14, soaked a ripped t-shirt in fake blood this Halloween, then lay out in our yard for hours, jumping up whenever anyone walked by. He made one lady scream.

What’s not to like about Halloween? It’s candy, it’s kids, it’s costumes.

But some people manage to be grumpy about it.

Some would rather turn off all their house’s visible lights and sit in a back room watching television then open their door to children and hand out some candy.

One year, when our children were small and we lived in an apartment building full of little kids, one
family brought their child around trick or treating but didn’t hand out any candy (or have it in a bowl by their door) like the rest of us did. It was like they violated a social contract. The father said that kids might take more than one candy from the bowl if they just left it out. Oh, yes, and that would be so terrible. Jerk.

Some people have religious objections. There are schools here in Texas that celebrate “Harvest Day,” not Halloween and don’t allow their students to dress as any magical or supernatural creatures. You can dress up as a farmer but not as Superman, because Superman is Against God. I’m sorry, but that’s just stupid.

Buy some candy, give it to kids, get over yourself.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

One Reason I Like The Y

Every time I go to the gym at my local Y, this big old Cadillac is parked in the same handicapped parking space, the one immediately next to the entrance.

Note the large signs declaring SAFETY PATROL. And the several years’ worth of 100 Club stickers fanned out on the back windshield. The 100 Club is a charity that gives money to the families of police officers and fire fighters who have died in the line of duty; rumor has it that having its sticker on your car, or better yet, a bunch of them fanned out so that a police officer can tell at a glance how many years you have given to the organization, can get you out of a ticket. (Note question #1 – and its ambiguous answer – on the 100 Club’s FAQ page.)

Though I always see the car, I have never seen the driver – and I really, really want to. My theory is the driver is at least 80 years old. I speculate, perhaps unfairly, that this person must peer through the steering wheel while driving.

Maybe she is one of the little old ladies, none over 4 ½ feet tall (and that’s counting their teased hair), who sit at a round table in the Y’s entrance area, laughing and playing cards.

Or one of the old men who stroll on the treadmills, most often in their street clothes. It could be the old man I always see, an amputee in a wheelchair, who lifts an impressive amount of weight while shooting the shit with the trainers.

Maybe having old people at your gym would not be a selling point for some. Maybe they’d like a “hot singles scene.”

Bleh.

I like the Y; it’s a force for good.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Girl Power, Twisted

When I started in middle school, a funny thing happened to the girls: they started using the words “slut” and “lesbian” (“lezzy” for short) on each other.

I had never heard those words before, didn’t know what they meant (though, clearly, they were bad) and figured that some girl’s parents were horrible and had taught her to use them as insults.

Once past high school, I didn’t hear “slut” again … until my daughter went to high school.

Are there really that many aberrant parents teaching their daughters the word “slut?” Or do girls seize on the concept, as they first deal with thoughts and feelings about sex?

According to this recent article in the New York Times, researchers “say that this ‘intrasexual competition’ is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.” In other words, it’s not the media damaging girls with their messages of female beauty and behavior (one expert quoted in the Times article said the media reflects trends that are in society, it doesn’t create them), nor is it, really, men. It’s other girls and women.

My daughter says she sits with her (female) friends at lunch, wishing she could sit at the boys’ table. (She doesn’t, because “everyone would talk.”) “At our table, everyone’s like, ‘Who likes who?’ and ‘She’s not my friend anymore,’ but I know the only thing the boys are worried about is whether the lunch ladies have run out of ice-cream sandwiches,” she says.

Looking back, my closest friends have almost always been boys – gay boys, even when we were both young enough not to know what gay was. The whole sex thing – desire or competition – was absent and we could just be friends.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Your Dreams

I have a favorite roasted-garlic pasta sauce recipe (from Emeril Lagasse). What I always forget, when I make it and scarf down three helpings, is: (a) I am now going to smell like garlic for the next 12 hours and (b) I am going to have strange dreams.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Or rather, I am going to remember the strange dreams that I always have.

I have long suspected that most of my dreams are anxious – but research tells me I am not alone. According to this New York Times article by Natalie Angier, about 75 percent of all dreams are negative.

No one knows for sure why we dream – or even why we sleep. Sleep may be a time when the brain repairs itself. Some believe that dreams are just the result of random firings of neurons which, given how vivid and intricate dreams can be, doesn’t seem right. Others point out that the body goes to great lengths to dream. During REM sleep, your body becomes paralyzed, a process known as atonia, so that you have your dreams but don’t act them out. Some say that dreaming may allow for “fear extinction,” a process where we learn to set fears aside.

The classic anxiety dream is you discover you have to take an exam for a class you forgot to attend – and you don’t even know where the exam is being held.  According to this article, this type of dream is becoming more common, as educational achievement is seen as increasingly essential for success, with children having them starting as young as 6. Sad.
My latest recurring anxiety dream: I am in an airport, about to miss my flight, and I can’t find the gate.
What passes through your mind at night?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Do You Tell Your Kids They Are Good-Looking?

My son recently started on his high school’s swim team: seed times, meets, heats, Speedos.

At my first meet, I noticed a boy who was clearly very shy. He stood, in his baggy sweatpants, his shoulders hunched, making eye contact with no one, his body language all awkwardness.

And then he stripped down to swim.

Not to sound like a dirty old woman, but this boy had the body of an Adonis, of Michelangelo’s David, of a Ralph Lauren model.

And he didn’t realize it.

I’ve heard parents say they don’t ever tell their children they are good-looking or refer to appearance at all because they don’t want to their kids to think that looks matter and then become anxious about them. Apparently, their theory is, “If I tell my children they are good-looking, then they will worry that they are not.” This makes no sense to me.

Nor does the idea that, if parents don’t talk about appearance, then appearance won’t matter. That ship sailed thousands upon thousands of years ago. (See Adonis, above.)

Nope, I think parents need to act as a counterweight to all the buffeting and doubt and bad ideas children are going to get from other sources.

I tell my kids they are good-looking. I tell them about their fabulous features, like my daughter’s movie-star hair.

What I don’t do is comment negatively on their appearance. And I am not after them to “do” anything with their looks. (That movie-star hair is generally up in a pony tail.)

Because the most attractive thing in the world is confidence.

And confident people can enjoy physical attractiveness, theirs and other people’s – which is what I wish for all kids, including that young Adonis.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Human Touch

Houston is not a pretty city. In fact, it’s been rated as one of the ugliest cities in the world.

 A Huffington Post writer pointed out, “This is a city so ugly that sometimes you may be tempted to put a bag over its head.” While you can duck down certain side streets to find residential neighborhoods of pretty houses under beautiful oaks, by and large, Houston, the largest American city with no zoning regulations, is an unending sprawl of strip malls: concrete, municipal signs and advertisements and cars, cars, cars.

And when you spend much time in your own car driving around, which you do, if you live here, you start treasuring the sight of actual human beings. Marketers know and take advantage of this, putting out real, live human beings to hold their signs or human-like figures.

I like the things that are a bit more home-made, like the goofy figures that mechanics make out of odds and ends and roll out to the street in front of their shops. I like funny signs. I like graffiti murals and street-art stickers and posters. Anything that shows we don’t live inside some kind of ugly, broken-down machine, that some other individual human being has put something up hoping we would see it.

 
These heads are outside a warehouse
near our neighborhood Target store.




Sunday, November 3, 2013

Trailing Clouds of Glory

My favorite part of going to the movies is watching the trailers.

It’s like how the appetizers are always the best-tasting part of a meal in a restaurant.

Perhaps my attention span has been conditioned to be short. Remember when television commercials used to be a minute long? Now, they are down to 10 and even 5 seconds.

I really feel like I can get the whole gist of a movie through the trailer. (And sometimes it’s painfully clear that they didn’t have enough “good stuff” to even fill the trailer.) It’s kind of like how you can read a book review, particularly one from the New York Times or The New Yorker, and feel like you got all the good parts of the book. I guess what I’m saying is that a trailer is kind of like Cliff Notes for a movie.

Sometimes, when the trailers come on, I realize that I am not the demographic that the movie-makers are aiming for, which gives me the sinking feeling that I’ve chosen the wrong movie to see. Last night, for instance, I went to see Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. (Here’s the trailer.) I liked that movie, but when I saw the trailers before it, two of them were for the most awful-looking horror movies: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Devil’s Due. I don’t recommend watching these trailers. Really. Yuck. I guess they are meant for 15-year-old boys, frighteningly disturbed 15-year-old boys.

The trailers in art-house movie theaters can be funny, though not often intentionally so. (Unfortunately.) Like this movie, which is called Two Mothers (trailer here) but which really, would more aptly be called “Wishful Thinking for Middle-Aged Women” or, as this review has it, just plain “porn”.

Still, I was entertained.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I Hate Tropical Fish

Anybody want some molly fish?
OK, so I’ve written about my daughter’s fish tank before.

But it fascinates me that this little ecosystem that she carefully set up – with water prepared and filtered and heated and regularly changed, with thoughtfully chosen plants and hidey holes – is its own miniature circle of hell.

Fish lead horrible lives.

When gourami fish get old, they tend to get dropsy, which is when they swell up so much, their scales stick out, making them look like pinecones, before they finally die.

And molly fish continually have babies. Mollies give birth to live young. Like 100 to 150 of them at a time. And they will, if given any chance, eat those babies in a horrible feeding frenzy. (So will the other fish.)

The first few turns of this “circle of life,” my daughter attempted to save the babies. But clearly, mollies are one of those animal species that have many, many young because only a few of them survive. Therefore, if you intercede and save them, you end up with a hundred or so baby fish and no idea what to do with them. Which leads to an interesting philosophical conundrum: should you save them since, in the grand scheme of things, they really weren’t meant, most of them, to survive?

And when my daughter did save them and put them in a little separate container that clips onto the side of the main tank, made for just this purpose, she had to leave the aquarium light/cover a little askew – which led to two of the other fish leaping out of the tank in the middle of the night, landing on the floor and dying what I am sure were agonizing deaths. (Stupid fish.)

Then, my daughter found them in the morning by stepping on them barefoot.

Blech.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

None Shall Pass: Why I Hate Passwords

My cell phone has a password.

My laptop has a password, as does the computer of every member of the family.

The family iPad has a password.

When my son plays a game on his computer (which, remember, already required a password), he needs another password for the game, even though the CD for that game is in the computer’s drive.

I need a password to order books from the library online.

I need a password to see my kids’ homework assignments (and my kids have their own, different passwords for that same website).

Want to download a free app on my phone? Better have the Apple Store password.

Want to watch something on Netflix or read an online newspaper? Better have the damn passwords.

And according to experts, these passwords need to be different from each other and changed frequently and they need to contain both letters and numbers – oh, and they should make no sense whatsoever or somebody might guess what they are, and even though you purposely just made them impossible to remember, don’t you dare write them down anywhere. Got that?

At least one expert recommends lying on those security questions sites have, like “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” and “Where did you first meet your significant other?” I have a hard enough time inputting the real answers correctly. When I typed in a city, did I put the city and the state? Did I capitalize every word in the title of my favorite book?

My husband recently started using Dashlane, an online password manager. That’s great, except this service, which requires its own password, doesn’t always work (particularly with newer operating systems).

In fact, I’m pretty sure the only person Dashlane has kept out of our accounts is me.

Yup, I hate passwords.

Monday, October 21, 2013

More Things That Don’t Work But That We All Seem To Think Do

Dishwashers: I mean, really, what’s the failure rate with your dishwasher? Around our house, at least 25% of the time, a dish or pot or fork or glass has to be rewashed by hand because it didn’t come clean. (Of course, my husband says that’s because of how I load our dishwasher and what I am willing to put in it. My theory of dishwasher loading is, “If it fits, it ships.”)

Plastic Shopping Baskets: I get shopping carts, but those little baskets stacked by them, meant for people, who aren’t getting a whole lot, to carry? These plastic baskets are heavy, in and of themselves, and are also cumbersome. They definitely don’t make grabbing a few items in the supermarket easier … particularly when you could just use a cart.

Pop-Up Internet Ads: OK, I don’t actually know anyone personally who thinks pop-up ads work, but someone must because companies continue to buy them. Here’s the thing: when an ad pops up and blocks my view of what I actually want to see, the thought that automatically pops up in my head is, “Don’t buy anything from this company, ever,” particularly when I have to search for the little “x” to get rid of it or when it starts talking to me or otherwise makes noise.

Spam: Like pop-up internet ads, I don’t know anyone who thinks spam works but there must be people out there who do. I realize they don’t cost a lot of money but they do cost some effort, if only to type the message. Honestly, is there anyone out there who would buy “herbal Viagra” from an anonymous email and then actually ingest it? Makes me despair for the future of the human race.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

There’s a Word for That

Sanpaku
Image courtesy of
photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We’ve all heard of the German word schadenfreude, meaning “feeling pleasure because of someone
else’s misfortune.”

That’s cool.

But there are many other equally cool words (found on Google here and here and here and here and here). For example, there’s cafuné, Brazilian Portuguese for the act of running your fingers tenderly through someone’s hair, and there’s kaelling, the Danish word for a mother who curses and screams at her children in public.

Drachenfutter, a German word (The Germans do seem to have a knack for cool words) which translates to “dragon fodder,” means the gifts a husband brings his wife when he knows he’s misbehaved.

Have you ever eaten an entire bag of potato chips without realizing till the bag is empty? The word for that, in Georgian, is shemomedjamo, meaning, “Oops, I ate the whole thing.”

L’espirit de l’escalier, a French phrase which translates as “wit on the stairs,” refers to coming up with a great comeback – too late.

Sanpaku means “crazy eyes” in Japanese. If you can see the whites of someone’s eyes on three sides of their irises, they are, judging from that facial expression, probably crazy.

Schlemiel and schlimazel (Remember from the “Laverne & Shirley theme song?) both mean “klutz” in Yiddish, but the schlemiel is the guy who trips and the schlimazel is the guy he falls on.

You know when you’ve had a nice dinner and everyone’s having a nice conversation – until someone jumps up and insists on clearing the dishes? That person has just ruined the sobremesa, the Spanish word for that nice after-meal interlude.

Tartle in Scotland is when you pause as you’re making introductions because you’ve forgotten someone’s name and jayus in Indonesia is a joke so bad and so badly told that it’s funny.

These words make me happy.

 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Gone to the Dogs

Gourmet dog cupcakes and cookies at local pet store.

I once asked, on Yahoo Answers, “What should I feed my dog?”

“Dog food, stupid,” someone replied.

Apparently, that shithead hasn’t been to the pet stores I’ve been to.

Or the dog parks. I was standing with a woman when a conversation about what people feed their dogs broke out. One of the participants fed her dogs only raw foods, giving them an entire raw chicken or a whole raw fish out in the yard. Another swore by organic food. (There are at least two organic dog-food stores in Houston.) Another man said he fed his dogs only kibble and was shunned.

“Wow,” marveled my companion, “talking about what you feed your dog here is like talking about politics or religion with normal people.”

And you go into the pet store and there are aisle and aisles of choices, not to mention freezers for kinds that need to be kept cold, including special ice cream for your dog. There’s organic. There’s gluten-free and wheat-free. You can get dog food that is beef-free. (Full disclosure: my dog Lola actually does have a sensitivity to beef. “Sensitivity to beef” is the polite way to say Lola gets the squirts if she eats any.)

But just as children’s books are marketed to the adults who will buy them for children, dog foods are marketed to the people who will buy them for dogs. Which is why you will see dog treats marketed as made with blueberries or pumpkin when I guarantee you that Lola the dog does not consider blueberries or pumpkin food.

Though, I admit, one of Lola’s favorite chew treats is, according to the label, made with yak milk, using an “ancient recipe of the people of the Himalayas and Nepal.”

So, yup, I’ve been sucked in.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Just The Facts

My teen-aged daughter knows more than one girl who says that, when she got her first period, she had no idea what was happening, was terrified and thought she was dying … because no one told her.

I would like to give the parents of these girls the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t realize puberty would happen as early as it did – and not suspect this was a plan on their part to instill in their girls a terror and loathing of their own bodies.

But I can’t.

They call them “the facts of life” for a reason, people. How can you just not tell your kid?

Besides, my kids’ pediatricians began formally reminding me at check-ups around age 7.

And, really, I had started much earlier. Kids ask questions about everything, including the pregnant lady they see in the playground and the thongs they see in Victoria’s Secret (“People wear those?!”).

That’s not to say I told everything all at once. I applied some advice I had once heard about the IRS – “If they ask a question, answer only that question” – to this situation. When my sisters were small, a neighborhood boy asked his mother about blood he had seen in the bathroom. She freaked and told this 6-year-old everything about sex – which he then kept trying to test out on my sisters.

My daughter had been content with “Babies develop in their mommies’ bodies” for years before she thought to ask, “So, how does the baby get in there?” (And visibly shaken by the answer, she responded, “Oh, man, I wish I hadn’t asked.”)

But here’s the kicker: telling your kids “the facts of life” is the easy part.

Explaining all the complexities of relationships, that’s far more involved.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Bad is the Word BITCH?

I taught my kids that swear words are no big deal, but that ugly insults are.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when my 14-year-old son, who is totally cool with the F-bomb, finds it shocking to hear someone called a bitch.

I find myself wondering if I have misled him. Have things changed?

For some reason, my phone plays my 18-year-old daughter’s songs whenever I’m in my car.

So, I have been pondering songs like “I Love It,” by Icona Pop, which contains the lyrics,“You’re from the Seventies, but I’m a Nineties bitch” and the bouncy little party tune “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, with its line, “You’re the hottest bitch in the place.”

I realize people have been trying to reclaim the word “bitch.”

But when this post from the blog, “Sassy Notions,” tells me that Linguistic sensitivity is self-defeating” and “So now, women can hold their heads high when called a bitch because they should be proud to be called an outspoken woman,” it strikes me as wishful thinking. Also, as blaming me for taking offense when offense is clearly meant.

A repairman once came to our apartment. When this physically huge man saw that my last name was different than my husband’s, he became enraged, calling me, among other things, a bitch. I nodded and soothed till I could get him out of my apartment.

So now, I watch the video for “Blurred Lines,” where fully clothed men dance with woman dressed only in nude-colored g-strings. Robin Thicke claimed in GQ, “We tried to do everything that was taboo . . . everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We're the perfect guys to make fun of this.’”

No. Not buying it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bad Attitudes about Goody Bags

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Some people despise goody bags.

Yup, those little sacks of favors and candy that parents give out at the end of birthday parties.

On a post, “Goody Bags Leave a Bad Taste in Some People’s Mouths” on the New York Times Motherlode blog, commenters wrote:

“I can't stand them. I assembled 8 yesterday for the official party and 24 for the school party, full of loathing the entire time . . . .”

and                            

"I absolutely detest goody bags, and I really detest the idea of teaching little children that little Billy's party is actually, really about them . . . .”

But I can’t help but notice that the people who are most against goody bags display the very attitudes -- competitiveness, self-centeredness -- they decry in others.

Many anti-goody-bag comments, for instance, are written by competitive parents, like this sancti-mommy, from a recent article in BrainChild magazine:

I dislike party favors as much as I dislike the toys in fast food meals (which were never a common occurrence for my kids, anyway) . . . .”

There was a comment on the New York Times article from a parent boasting that her party featured games that were “math-based.”

Many will write how much they hate goody bags and, in the same comment, boast about their own, like this, from BrainChild:

“I truly hate pointless party favors, but also felt swept away by peer pressure to give out favors . . . My rebellious solutions were always the hit of the neighborhood. I have given CD’s with my child’s picture on the cover and a bunch of their favorite copyright free songs . . . picture frames with my child in them . . . .”

For the record, I like goody bags. Why? Because kids like them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Should Teenagers Be Drug-Tested?

I just wrote an article about this for the Buzz Magazines here in Houston. My kids go to a school that does random drug tests of its students and I can see both sides.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Betta Fish

A male betta fish. Image courtesy of PANPOTE / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
You know those sad “fighting fish” in the pet store, the ones that droop, alone, in little containers of
water, waiting for someone to buy them and put them in a slightly bigger container of water where they will spend the rest of their lives alone?

The ones with the larger, more flamboyant fins and tails are males. They are the ones that have to be kept alone. If put with another male fighting, or betta, fish, they will kill each other. They will also kill female betta fish and other fish. They are just mean and aggressive.

But female betta fish, my daughter has discovered, can live with each other and with other fish.

I happen to think the females are prettier than the males. Their fins and tails are not so large that they seem deformed and unable to move. (Betta fish were bred from small, very plain fish that live in the muddy, shallow water of rice paddies.)

This leads me to some questions:

First, betta fish are just one of many poster children for why it’s better to be female than male. I mean, really, would you rather be the cute and cuddly mama seal or the big dumb elephant seal male, bellowing and steamrollering over babies?

Second, what does it say about people that we bred betta fish to be the way they are? We always seem to be breeding animals until they don’t function right, as shown in this BBC documentary on purebred dogs.

Third, male violence and aggression does seem to win out, in human culture throughout history, as well as in the animal kingdom. Why do we smart, healthier females, the ones who have the babies, put up with it? Why aren’t there more Umojas?