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Archive for February, 2010

I love Ira Glass (the face on that weird tattoo to the left) and all the other folks on the public radio show This American Life; the chance to listen to podcasts of their wonderful show is one of the main things that gets me out doing my exercise walks in Riverside Park on cold winter mornings.  I’ve never really understood people who find Ira and the rest of his crew cloying and self-centered; if they were all that self-centered, how could they find so much about the world around them — the parts of the world that are NOT themselves — so damned interesting?

But I had a moment, listening to their rather self-congratulatory 400th show from this past weekend, when I realized that maybe they really are a bit self-centered after all.  The conceit of the show was that the producers would take turns doing stories based on the brilliant ideas their parents had suggested — ideas they had previously rejected as not quite good enough.  I know the feeling; as a journalist who writes a lot about health and medicine, I’m frequently told “you really should write an article about X,” X being whatever health issue the speaker or the speaker’s next-door-neighbor’s aunt’s best friend is suffering from.  This used to really really bug me when I was young and insecure about my career and where it was heading.  Now that I’m 56 and can pretty much see where it was heading — or, more accurately, where it didn’t head — I think I’m a little more gracious in the way I deflect these well-meaning but always-odd article ideas.

The This American Life crew, though, wasn’t all that gracious.   Yes, they finally were getting around to doing the stories their parents had suggested, but was I alone in thinking that they did it with a bit too much attitude?   “You should really do a story about the Erie Canal,” said someone’s father, not as dumb an idea as they made it sound, and the daughter then proceeded to write and sing a snarky song about the “Canal to the Moon.”  And there was one other thing about this show that rankled me: the parents were never introduced by their names.  They were “Nancy’s father” or “Ira’s stepmother,” as though that was the only thing about them that mattered.

Come on, guys.  You’re grownups now.  Your parents have names, and identities apart from you, and they’re tired of putting those names and identities on the back burner as they bask in the glow of being your parents.  And could you really fail to see how much of a kick it would have been for them to hear their OWN names — instead of always YOUR names — mentioned on national radio?

Side note to Meta and Nutmeg: I truly, truly love meeting your friends and co-workers.  When you introduce me to them, could you please follow the “This is my mom” with my actual name?  Thank you.

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Gypsy” was on TV last night.  Quite apart from the misguided decision to cast Rosalind Russell instead of the iconic Ethel Merman in the lead as Rose — and quite apart from the fact that, like so many of the musicals I adored as a child, this one turned out to be a lot less magical than I remembered — it did raise some fascinating questions about how to be a mother to adult daughters.

It’s easy to feel superior to Rose in the mothering department.  She’s the quintessential stage mother, getting in the way at every step — see her off Stage Right, pantomiming the words and doing the steps as Baby June auditions for a dancing role.   It’s obvious to the viewer, even if it isn’t to Rose’s daughters June and Louise, that she was frustrated in her own ambitions, and is living her life through her kids.  Bad motivation, obviously.  And it’s a memorable moment — so much so that iDaddy and I both spoke the line aloud along with Natalie Wood– when Rose, feeling cast off after Louise has turned into the incredibly successful stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, asks an anguished question, one that is asked, in slightly different forms, by many discarded mothers.  “What did I do it for?” she asks.  All that work, all those those shows, all that hustling,, all those times of trying to stretch one dollar to feed five mouths, Rose said, only to be told now to get out of her daughter’s life.  “What did I do it for?”  And Louise answers, calmly, “I thought you did it for me, Mama.”

Of COURSE she did it for Louise — or at least, of course she was supposed to.  Rose seems to think it’s ridiculous for Louise to assume that a mother’s efforts to help her child succeed, however frantic and excessive, are what she does for her child instead of for herself.  We the audience are supposed to think that this is simply a reflection of Rose’s grotesque narcissism, a stage mother gone mad.

But what makes this play so powerful — not this movie necessarily, but the play and memoir that it’s based on (that’s the real Gypsy Rose Lee to the left, by the way, a little more zaftig than Natalie Wood).  Because while Rose might be an exaggeration of a bad, self-centered mother, there’s actually a little bit of Rose in all of us.  We all have dreams for our children, and even if our support is intended to help them accomplish THEIR dreams, our own dreams are often there, too, lurking in the background.  We work so hard for them partly because we feel that their success reflects on us somehow.  Isn’t that what those infernal Christmas letters are all about?

And while I think it’s less common for mothers of my generation (the 50-somethings, who came of age at the dawn of feminism) to live through our children than it was in my mother’s or grandmother’s, we do get vicarious pleasure from their accomplishments — and refracted pain from their sorrows.  There’s probably a biological explanation for this.  But damn, I hope it’s a tendency I manage to keep under control.  I’m already taller than both my daughters; I don’t want to overshadow them metaphorically, too.

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As focused as I’ve been in thinking about being a mother to adult children from the point of view of the mother, I seem to have lost sight of the fact that I also have a stake in this issue from the point of view of the child.  My mother, God bless her, is still alive and opinionating at age 85, and our relationship in recent years has become a lot more mellow than it was at its worst.  (And its worst, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not during my adolescence, when I was a pretty placid and agreeable teenager, but during my young adulthood, when there was something about my sense of a self as a mother of daughters that poisoned the way I felt about myself as the daughter of a mother.)

But sometimes, even though our relationship is basically good, we flare up at each other.  We did today.  It seemed to come out of the blue with a phone call this afternoon, in which my mother — what should I call her as a blog nickname?  how about Ur-Momma — called to inform me that she was very offended by what she heard as “disdain” in the outgoing voicemail message I had left on her new cell phone.  “Don’t bother to leave a message, she can’t retrieve it,” I said in what I remember was meant to be a sort of joshy tone.  “Just call back.”

I was leaving the message on her behalf because I was giving her a different cell phone — my old phone, since I had caved in and accepted the hand-me-down smartphone that Nutmeg was offering me.  (This was a difficult decision on my part, which I arrived at mostly because whenever I heard myself saying things like, “But my own stupidphone works just fine,” I knew I was sounding just like Ur-Momma.  I didn’t want to turn into Ur-Momma.)  And here’s the crucial bit: on her old cell phone, Ur-Momma’s own outgoing voicemail message was, essentially, “Don’t bother to leave a message, I can’t retrieve it.”  She had made exactly the same joke.

Now, I told her that.  I told her I was only trying to imitate her own clever message.  She told me to listen to it again myself (three hours later, and I still haven’t, and don’t intend to) to hear how dismissive and disdainful my tone was.  It’s not funny that I don’t know how to retrieve messages, she said.  I know I’m a Luddite, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.

I could tell that the outgoing voicemail message wasn’t what was really bothering her, but I couldn’t get Ur-Momma to tell me what was.  We hung up on bad terms, and I looked for a wireless retailer where I could re-activate her old phone.   I called her back to tell her I would walk down to her apartment, take the old phone and the new phone, walk the two blocks to the wireless retailer, and get her the old phone back so she wouldn’t feel like such a technoklutz.   No answer.  This happens sometimes when Ur-Momma is feeling “down” — she just ignores the phone.  I called her back half an hour later.  I made my phone-switching offer, and then I asked her what was really going on.  I’m down, she said.  Why, I asked.  And suddenly we were yelling at each other about what was really bugging her — that my brother (let’s call him Avuncular) had called me last night, and I had told him that I was in the middle of a meeting and we’d have to talk another time.  When Ur-Momma called me this morning to see if I had talked to Avuncular, I told her that he had called but that we hadn’t spoken because I was in the middle of a meeting.

Turns out she was upset because I didn’t follow that up with “and I called him back when the meeting was over.”  Did she really need to know that it didn’t end till 11, and that I sent him an email early this morning suggesting that we talk later tonight?  Is it any business of hers?  I’m 56 years old — am I not allowed to deal with my relationship with my 53-year-old brother on my own, without one of us calling the other “because Mommy says”?

Apparently she thinks it is her business.  (And in another post I’ll say wonderful things about how smart and funny and involved and generous Ur-Momma is; just give me this one, about how annoying and intrusive she can be.)  After we stopped yelling, Ur-Momma went on and on about her favorite topic — my brother and me.  “The only thing that matters to me in my life is that my children are there for each other,” she said for the gazillionth time.  Avuncular and I grew up with the sing-song in our ears of “Brothers and sisters are the closest thing in the world.”  Ur-Momma is the oldest of three sisters and they are extraordinarily close, so even without the relentless sloganeering, Avuncular and I would have gotten the message from their loving example that siblings are a lifelong commitment.  AND I HAD ALREADY EMAILED HIM.

I get it, sort of.  I want Nutmeg and Meta to be friends and to rely on each other; in fact, before Ur-Momma ruined my day, I was still smiling after a lovely lunch with Nutmeg in which she had told me in hilarious detail about an endless Twitter and g-chat exchange between her and Meta regarding live yogurt cultures.  (Meta had even included me in the discussion by g-chatting me, “your other child doesn’t know what YOGURT IS MADE OF.”)  Like my own mother, I’ve always wanted my kids to be friends, to love each other, to know they could depend on each other.  Sometimes their relationship is good, sometimes less good — like any relationship.  But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do when it’s not going so well is to insert myself into it to try to make it better.

That’s what Ur-Momma has been doing between Avuncular and me our whole lives, taking the temperature of our relationship to make sure it meets her exacting standards — and if for some reason it doesn’t, to try to fix it.  That’s what she was doing today.  Amazingly, my brother and I love each other anyway.  I love my mother, too, but at the moment she’s pissing me off, and reminding me that with even the best of intentions, the parent of an adult child can sometimes make mistakes.

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happy yet?

The lovely fiction writer Amy Bloom has an essay in this week’s New York Times Book Review that’s supposedly a round-up of happiness books — something close to my heart because many years ago (long before this current publishing phenomenon) I wanted to write a book about the science of happiness.  The books she describes seem pretty annoying, especially the mega-seller by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project.  But Bloom, who is usually a very incisive writer, isn’t quite snarky enough in this essay for my taste — she seems to think that Rubin, who spent a year trying to follow get-happy advice, is at least”pleasant company.”  Really?  A woman who writes about how organizing her closets is one of the surefire routes to happiness?

What I want to write about here, though, is Bloom’s insight at the end of her essay.  I knew she’d get around to something brilliant eventually.  Happiness, she concludes, is inherently transient; in fact, its transience is what gives it meaning.  “To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies,” she writes.  “No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.”

It seems that if I read these lines closely enough, I can find in them some wisdom about what it means to parent grown-up children.  I used to say that parenting was the cruelest job in the world — you give your children every ounce of your love and attention, all your passion, all your concern, and if you’ve done your job right, after 18 years they leave you.   I know now, almost 30 years into this cruel job, that it doesn’t really end, and that it isn’t really cruel.  It creates moments to savor, moments that constitute some of the deepest joys of your life, but those moments can’t last forever.  Not only can’t they last — those ephemeral moments are, maybe, the whole damned point.

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