Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Is a WASP?

On my first day at the all-girls Victoria Hall dormitory at Queen's University, I stood uncomfortably waiting to check in and realized I didn't have a chance.  With my short, permed hair and in a skirt of all things, I'd agonized that morning over two huge pimples that had sprung up in my state of going to university jitters.  I'd needn't have worried about the zits, as I'd pretty much missed the boat entirely.

It seemed as though all the girls waiting in front of me had come straight from the Holt Renfrew store at Bloor and Bay in Toronto, with their perfect blond ponytails, long brown legs and Ralph Lauren polos.  They were the Beautiful People, or BP's, as my friends and I were later to call them.  For four years at school and a number afterwards, I made fun of their incestous social circles and their pretentious manners.  But of course I was desperately jealous of their private school educations and their summers on Lake Muskoka. In stark contrast to me, they grew up knowing exactly who they were and how their lives would turn out. 

In his winsome memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, writer Tad Friend gives a delightful account of his family.  Refreshingly, it's not a sordid tell-all, at least not by modern standards. Yet because Friend and his kin are WASPs, after all, it and the New Yorker article Friend wrote shortly after his mother's death made some of his family feel he was, he writes in the book, "ungenerous." 

The best parts of Cheerful Money describe what I learned at Queen's--real WASPs don't under any circumstances flaunt or talk about their money.  It's vulgar.  And they never, ever look like they are trying too hard.  "We received," Friend writes, "a tricky set of imperatives: meet the unspoken standard without thinking about it too much."  Eccentricity, however, is part of the deal, and I loved Friend's descriptions of family members who drink and have affairs (so John Cheever) but who also go crazy to one degree or another.  One of his cousins says that if Ralph Lauren really wanted to capture WASPs he ought to put mannequins wearing white doctors coats holding lithium drips in his store windows.    

The end of the WASPs' hold on the world began in 1965.  Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, chose this as the year to begin his series for this reason.  It was the beginning of the information age, the sexual revolution.  All the rules seemed to change overnight, and it became very, very square to be a WASP.  Yet some have stubbornly hung on to those rules, and it's not all bad. 

It's 2010 and I am a forty-something woman living in Texas of all places, and many of the women I most admire are true WASPs.  My friend Debra went to Wellesley and wears LL Bean and Ralph Lauren and lipstick only at her annual holiday party, where she and her husband, Paul, lead the guests in a song they've composed about the year's current events.  She is wise and thoughtful and is one of those rare souls who actually goes to City Council hearings on zoning issues.  In our neighborhood Fourth of July parade, she dresses up as Martha Washington and hands out rolled-up photocopies of the Declaration of Independence.  Once I was beside her at the annual Stock Show Parade in Fort Worth when a group of cowboys dressed in Confederate garb and holding rebel flags rode by.  "The war's over, boys!" she shouted.  I was a little embarassed until the middle-aged couple in lawn chairs in front of us immediately turned around and said as if on cue, "No it's not."  Deb represents the best of WASP tradition. She is a bit of character, but a person of substance.  When I grow up, I want to be just like her.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advice Columns Are Balm for the Soul

When I was younger I had a habit of falling into existential troughs of despair.  It looked like a deep, dark pit.  I am a small person with freckles on her nose and an energetic walk.  Sometimes I think I went to these places so I could take myself seriously and then be hopeful that others would do the same.

As the Kenny Chesney song goes, I wanted it all, and that's what I got, so I no longer worry about being taken seriously.  If I am not a grownup now, I won't ever be. 

But when I am feeling a little self-centered--and, to be honest, morbidly curious about what the person in the next cubicle might have happening in his life--I have a few on-line spots where I go to read about people who are truly a mess. It's faster than sitting in front of reality shows, and I like my sanctimonious thrills to be easy.

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite agony cafes:

David Eddie's Damage Control.  This is on the Globe and Mail website, and Eddie is deeply Canadian--sarcastic and practical.  It's cold there.  No time for Southern passive aggression.  The questions are also a bit pedestrian, but along the lines of Advice You Can Use. For example: "Our kids grew apart.  Do we have to stay friends with the other couple?" Yet his answers are funny and manly, which I think is more fun than the navel-gazing women's magazine nonsense that is more prevalent.

Since You Asked.  Cary Tennis is the most brilliant advice-giver I've ever run across, but be prepared.  He is a recovering addict and clearly from the Bay Area.  Still, people write in about all sorts of crazy stuff that wouldn't make ink (or screen space) in mainstream media.  I don't really read the rest of Salon, but I've loved Cary's stuff for years.  He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer back in November and is on hiatus, but his archived columns will keep you busy until he gets back.  Be prepared to be shocked and maybe cry.  Then laugh.  Or at least have a wry smile elicited from your cynical little self.

Dear Prudence.  She looks a little prudish, no pun intended, in her Slate photo.  And yet, she tackles much beyond Emily Post.  "My husband slept with my best friend.  Should I confront her?"  Here she offers pretty smart stuff.  I admire her non-hysterical attitude.  She addresses all queries with the unspoken question of, how can I address this very uncomfortable thing while still maintaining my dignity?

The Divorce Doctor.  From the author of, "He's History, You're Not," this is really a column for middle-aged women who've been shoved off the gravy train.  So far I am a little frustrated with the letters asking how on earth they will ever find another husband at 60.  Hardly the point, IMHO. This is from someone who did get divorced and knows the answer is always, keep your day job (hello, Silda Spitzer) and if you don't have one, get one, even if it's not your dream gig. And: Get. Your. Own. Credit.  But still, if you are in this place, she is like a good friend in the trenches.  We all need several in the heat of it.

What's Your Problem?  If you have a lot of whiners around you and you need a smart-ass sidekick, Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic columnist, is your guy.  "What Happens to E-Mails When I Die?"  (This questioner is probably going to make his wife consult The Divorce Doctor, but that's another issue.) Goldberg says that when Atlantic employees, die, their email and other electronic correspondence are "collated, bound, and offered for sale to the general public." 

So there you have it.  Gorge yourself on the misery of others.  It might not make you a nicer person, but it's much cheaper than a trip to the mall.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I was looking for my son.  We had decided--or, I had said I thought it was a good idea--to run a 10K, since he is showing great interest in a relatively organized sport for the first time in his life.  He's been training for an annual local event, his second 5K race, with his team at school, after making it in in about 24 minutes in his first. 

This is the child who started barking like a seal before he could talk.  It wasn't bronchitis, the pediatrician told me; it was asthma, a bronchiospastic cough. I spent countless hours on the phone in the middle of the night with pediatric nurses, who coached me through multiple breathing treatments that made my baby boy's little heart pound like a rabbit's after escaping the wolves.  I would have made a deal with the Devil himself to take it from his chest to my own.

The year he turned four, on too many days I would take him to preschool and cross my fingers when I dropped him off.  Later in the morning my office phone would ring and his dear teacher, in tears, would ask me to come and get him. "He has hardly stopped coughing." I was obviously A Bad Mommy. Then would have to leave a meeting early and worry about how it would count against me when the lawyers I worked for all had stay-at-home wives and full-time nannies to boot. They looked at one another, gentlemen all, and said it was fine.  But I wondered what they said about my commitment when I left.  What would they say when I left?

This week we had unseasonably warm weather, and the general population started sneezing.  My son, blessedly prescription-free for nearly a year ("He's done so well, I so hope he can do it without the medicine," the doctor who'd met him at two days old said) had started a bit of a cough.  We'd gotten out the over the counter allergy stuff, and it was starting to work.  But I wasn't sure about the run.  Maybe this would be too much. 

Still, the morning was gorgeous and ridiculously warm for January, and he said, "No, I'm fine!"  as he popped out of bed at 7 on a Sunday.  We stepped up to the start line with another hundred or so hardy souls, and set off.  A mile and a half in, my son said he had a stitch.  We walked for a bit.  Then we ran again, and he said he thought it might be too far.  "Go ahead, Mom."  I hesitated, but then thought, he has to run his own race.  The cough was there.  I heard his father's voice telling me I was once again doing something for me without consideration for anyone else.

I trucked along at a hesitant pace and tried to enjoy the sunshine.  Talked to a couple of other runners and said a bright hello to those who acknowledged me on their way back along the loop.  But I looked behind me and didn't see him.  As I finally rounded the last corner to the last .2 miles, I saw the truck with the race marshalls from the far end of the loop coming in.  Would they have picked him up? The race clock said 1:02, so I certainly hadn't beaten my hour limit.  But not bad, given that I hadn't raced this distance since 1993.  I crossed the line and walked towards the pavillion where people had gathered post-event.  There was my son, sitting at a picnic table, munching on a cookie.

"Hey. I was wondering when you'd get in."  He'd finished in 53 minutes, fully kicking his old mom's butt.  "Can we go?  I've been in for a while, and I'm getting cold.  That was fun."  So we headed back towards the car and to his sister, who was ready to go to our favorite breakfast place.  We ate bagels and told her all about the fat guy in shorts and no shirt in 50-degree weather. The guy who brought his dog, who barked and pooped all along the course. "It really was fun," he said.  And then I felt like a pretty good mommy.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Power of Beauty

Art is often thought to be a luxury, the province of people who sip wine and muse about brushstrokes at gallery openings.  But it can also sustain through difficult times, even times of what might be unbearable agony. 

In an interview on NPR, Julliard-trained violinist Romel Joseph described being trapped under the rubble of the music school he started (almost unbelievably, the earthquake struck ten years to the day that a fire had destroyed the school, after which Joseph rebuilt) unable to move.  He developed a ritual:  twenty minutes an hour were devoted to prayer and meditation, then he "performed" selected favorite pieces of music in his head. 

"For example, if I play the Franck sonata, which is thirty-five minutes long in my honors recital at Julliard, then I would bring myself to that time.  That allows me to not only kill time, but also to take me out of the mental space where I was."  He was freed, but his wife, pregnant with their first child, did not survive.  In his interview, his resolve to rebuild the school was stronger than his grief.  Art will sustain him. 

Last night my children and I watched the Hope for Haiti Telethon.  The music was so extraordinary that even I could not be a cynic (although I did miss Springsteen's version of We Shall Overcome, which might have tried my anti-boomer tendencies) and several times I was moved to tears.  My daughter and I are anxiously awaiting the iTunes download, and I know it will be in constant rotation in my car music.  There will be many who will say a bunch of celebrities getting together for a cause is just self-aggrandizing, but for me listening to truly brilliant musicians putting their gifts to use with little or no rehearsal was transporting. 

There has never been a time in my life when fiction has not been a refuge.  Growing up in a tiny, freezing town in the middle of nowhere, I would trudge through the snow to the little local library and would find Howard Fast or James Michener and go to Hawaii or wherever they were inclined to take me.  Now I can read a book review in the New Yorker and order it on Amazon, but more than likely I'll run to the Barnes & Noble two minutes from my house to find an escape because I need one right now.  This typically happens when I've had a bad week at work or am brooding about the sorry state of my love life and how it isn't likely to improve. 

I don't know what people who don't read or paint or love music do when the world throws them a bad day or a terrible blow. But I am grateful that I have a lot of friends who will stop conversation to listen to a guitar riff.  They are also the ones who will ask me what I am reading and know the answer won't be short.  Those who understand that when we visit one another we'll put the local art museums on the itinerary so we can catch up and at the same time look at something someone has created with their heart and soul. Then we grow a little while talking about it.  So later, in the face of something difficult, we remember there is plenty of beauty in the world.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's the Trip, Not the Destination. Right?

Why do so many of us fail to reach long-term goals?  Because succeeding at a long-term proposition or meaningful life change is a process, not an event. 

Seth Godin's excellent blog addressed this in a post last month, although he looked at it from a business standpoint.  Although many companies are jumping into social networking, many are failing, because their cultures are event-oriented---go to a trade show, make the sales pitch, close the deal.  This means they have a hard time with a Twitter mentality, because it involves many small, consistent efforts that evolve over time, based on a give and take relationship with customers.  Writes Seth, "Dating is a process, as is losing weight and raising capital and taking a company public."

Events are fun, process is not.  Events involve choosing the dessert for the reception, driving the shiny car off the lot, celebrating the promotion.  Process is about lacing up your running shoes even if it's raining, saying no to the dessert, agreeing to be set up on yet another potentially horrible date.  Events have an immediate thrill, becuase they usually involve spending money.  If you're a savvy purchaser, you typically know what you are getting. In contrast, process takes a long time and the payoff is frequently in question.  And, important for people like me, being immersed in process often gives me the panicked feeling that I am, God forbid, wasting time. 

This is why we like to shop more than we like to date, why we would rather watch the game than go to the gym at six in the morning.  We don't want to keep going out for dinner and telling strangers our life story, we just want to open our front door and find the love of our life standing there.  We do the cauliflower diet or the protein diet or the vitamin purge because we don't want to live our lives without pecan pie and cheeseburgers.  Leave the Zen patience and long path towards enlightenment to the Buddhist monks; we're not getting any younger. 

The problem is that our way usually means we don't reach our goals, and we frequently feel unfulfilled once the kick of immediate gratification wears off.  Maybe the trick is to accept that it's going to be a long, slow trip, and use our energy towards taking one more of those thousand steps.  I guess this means I'll have to go on a few more dates.  But first I need some new shoes.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


So it's official. I am betrothed to a bungalow with 1,800 square feet and a sprinkler system.  I should really be excited, because this is a great thing.  I love the house, and can imagine the kids and I hanging out in that family room and on that deck, and I have enough confidence from event planning so things like moving aren't extremely daunting. That, and I am lucky enough to have a daughter who was born to be a project planner and never met a challenge she didn't like.  She will be called upon plenty in upcoming weeks. 

Last week we had a Big Freeze in North Texas (14 degrees at night is colder than I can remember it being in the dozen years I've lived here) and the seller's agent turned off the water, responsibly.  When the inspector came by on Tuesday, he turned on the water at the street, and nothing came out of the taps.  But when we walked outside on the deck, there was a rushing sound.  Burst pipe. 

So after a sleepless night, my realtor called me and said the plumber had been there that day and all had been fixed.  A visit on Thursday confirmed that he had indeed, and that the pipe under the deck had not only been wrapped but also extended out to the end of the deck so we can turn it on to drip during the inevitable freeze in years to come.  The sellers really seem like good, honorable people, and the inspector agreed they'd done a tremendous amount to get the place into good shape. The house was warm and comfortable and felt like mine.  Today I did a drive-by.  Okay, so I do them every day, sort of like looking like your engagement ring every time you get in the car and see it in the sun.  It is still as pretty as it looked the day I found it. 

It's a big deal, but less like getting married than becoming a parent.  I remember being pregnant for the first time and I was as happy and as worried as I had ever been in my life.  This little person, who after all I didn't know yet, was going to be my responsibility.  (Okay, his/her Dad's, too, and he turned out to be a wonderful father, but my control freak nature kept reminding me that I Am The Mommy, and what if I was awful at it?)  The feeling I have when I look at the house is familiar, because it feels less like engagement and more like being with child. 

And yet, that little bean has turned into a smart and capable young woman, and now she'll help me get this done.  Her brother will do what he can, but he is ten and by the time I had him I figured I more or less knew what I was doing (although of course that's an open question for the duration of parenthood) which means he is like, no worries.  Anyway, I'm excited but nervous, but if I can change a thousand diapers I can sure handle furnace filters and garage door openers.  Right?  As my son would say, it's all good, Mom.  

Friday, January 8, 2010

What's Your Type?

This is a fun little exercise, especially for those of you in the advertising and graphic design business.  Fast Company has a link to a stylish interactive that features a headless analyst with an accent like a good parody of Sigmund Freud.  He'll ask you four questions (they're fun and cleverly-put) and then he'll tell you about "your" typeface. 

Here's mine:  "Archer Hairline is a modern typeface with a straightforward appearance, but one that has tiny outbreaks of elegance and tiny dots of emotion, only apparent on closer examination.  If you are someone who is outwardly composed, but will occasionally run into the bathroom for a quick laugh or a quiet cry before emerging to the world outwardly composed again, then Archer Hairline is your type." 

This isn't completely true, of course.  Sometimes I cry in the car.  Try it and tell me yours.

Monday, January 4, 2010

How Looking for a House is Like Dating Part II

I am cheating on my house.  Pushed toward commitment, I've been checking out others every chance I get, and their novelty is certainly pulling me in. They're bigger, have updated bathrooms, new shiny appliances.  The charm of my little place, with its graceful arches and well-worn hardwood, is looking less appealing next to the the smell of fresh paint and new carpet. It's fun imagining myself opening another front door when guests come over.  Will friends see me as different, more substantial? 

I've been neglecting my old place, too, and getting grumpy.  I don't want to clean those ceiling fans.  What if I don't live here six weeks from now?  And every time I wipe down the kitchen, I see all those awful ceiling lights, and my own failings: that floor with the traces of red paint ingrained in it because when I moved in I decided to paint the back shed a brilliant crimson (bad, bad idea, which was promptly covered up in beige, but nevertheless a little got tracked in and I've never forgotten the ill-advised choice of my recently separated self) and never mind the roof. How is it that I've not really looked at the roof of every house I've driven past?  Now it's all I do. 

It's like dating a guy who has a lot of lovely qualities, but he's gotten a little soft over the years.  And his hairline is definitely receding.  The hairplugs are going to cost some coin, and even if I encourage him to join the gym, he still might not look that great, even with some work.  I can't be sentimental about it, because after all, I've haven't married the fellow.  We're just in a long-term, comfortable thing.  Do I really want to wake up every day and know this house belongs to me?

The truth is, I've got it bad for another structure.  It's got an extra bedroom, and this perfect family room at the back that I can just see the kids hanging in with their friends.  And then there's this huge deck at the back.  Oh, the deck.  A couple of steaks and some wine, and my friends and I will solve all the problems of the world. 

I'm infactuated to the extent that I've let my friends look at.  My kids, too, which I've never done with a house, and only once with a man.  He broke up with me two weeks later, but that had more to do with us (or more likely me) than with them.  Still, it's a cautionary experience. 

An inspection is a lot like meeting the in-laws, since most of us turn into our twelve year-old selves around our families. Or is that just me? At any rate, once I look under the crawlspace and see the wiring, I might think twice.  I'd like to think I am old enough to see past that deck, but there's no fool like an old one.  Or at least a middle-aged one.  Again, stay tuned.