Friday, May 27, 2011

Hamlet was right: The play IS the thing.

NOTE: I spent many hours as a "theater mom" while my boys enjoyed participating in a number of theatrical productions and musical performances during their high school years. For years, I've likened the hours I've spent as an enthralled listener to a spa treatment: the ultimate relaxation and balm for my soul at the same time. Too many time to count, I've been beyond proud of them as they would confidently stride across a stage and capture the audience with their vocal gifts.

The post below reflects back on those years and is my small thank you to "theater kids" of every age who will never lost the sparks that makes the magic happen.

As Hamlet proclaimed: “The play’s the thing…” I don't have nearly the subterfuge Hamlet had in mind by quoting this line but I will say this: he was right. Backstage, as I stand in silent awe of the tumult and talent surrounding me, I think I understand him at least form one perspective. Just as certainly as night follows day, this season finds hundreds of students experiencing the culmination of months of hard work and dedication: the high school musical.

What’s endlessly remarkable to me about the whole enterprise is the absolute passion of every single person concerned. But in the marathon run up to opening night, I wonder if that passion sometimes gets overshadowed by the “business” – the lists, tasks, details and sure, stress levels – that creates the well-oiled machine of a show that “works.”

Set designers start with a plan, and then follow it up with hundreds of details surrounding the construction, painting and portability of each piece. The talented crew has little desire to stand in front of a spotlight but their work helps every moment, every nuance come alive on stage. They step up to build it, to paint it, to move it – and then they step down; out of sight, behind the curtain.

Lighting and sound techs want nothing more than to make sure everything is seen and heard precisely as planned for the audience in the darkened theater. They transport us to a different time and place as they create the mood and allow us to enter the world of the story. A dark forest feels like a dark forest; a raucous tavern sounds like a raucous tavern. And although they, too, work out of sight, we see and hear their work throughout a successful performance.

Musicians move us with every note. Sitting unobtrusively in the dark, they help create the mood of the story that unfolds on stage. The score makes us laugh, makes us tear up, or cues us at critical moments. Musicians touch us with stirring anthems or delicate harmonies as they accompany the vocalists, and add texture and layers to each piece.

Costumes, makeup and props create entirely new characters out of the everyday teenagers who step on stage to entertain us with drama and song. Ultimately, we’re face to face with the actors and actresses themselves. The months they spend moving thoughtfully from place to place on stage, blocking a scene one way, then another, then another and then possibly another before settling on exactly who stands/moves/sits where and when appears casual and spontaneous during a performance. The turn, or nod, or touch that appears unpracticed and genuine goes through a number of versions before it becomes second nature to the character and the performer.

Dedicated directors want nothing more than to help every student have fun, improve their skills, and enjoy their experience. They, too, sit quietly in the dark, or walk the halls backstage, as the performance unfolds. Everything is in the hands of their students, and they surrender it all to the curtain up cue.

There comes that point where they know every move, they know every word, every note, every cue, every set change. They simply can’t know it any better. But the question is: what do they know? They’ve spent months concentrating on the dynamics, the marks, the costumes, lights, sound, and make-up – yet I hope they remember the whole, not necessarily the pieces.

As theaters go dark this spring, I wonder: what does this all come to – when the final note plays and the curtain falls? Surely the participants take something away from the experience as they return full-time to their real lives and leave the show behind.

Sure, no one wants to drop a line or miss a cue – but now and in the years to come, I hope the actors, technicians and musicians have learned so much more than the mechanics. I hope they discovered that, at its best, the pure essence of theater transports all of us beyond the everyday world.

I hope they’ve found the heart of the show; and the commitment they made to express that heart with every bit of their being. I hope they recall how the lighting they created looked soft and entrancing; how the set they built evoked exactly the right atmosphere; how the words they delivered or music they performed emerged from a place they had not fully explored until exactly that moment; that moment of fulfillment and triumph on stage.

This is about the joy and passion for the craft, about collaborating and celebrating each other’s gifts. It’s digging deep, and bringing what lies within them to the surface for all to see.

You’ve created that miraculous, unforgettable, always unique experience called theater. To everyone who has already taken their final bows this year, and to those who are about to: thank you. And as they sang in Les Miz: here’s to them; and here’s to you.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On coloring, outlines, and no lines.

It may take me a while, but I eventually get there. By “there,” I mean it takes me a while to connect the dots, to follow the threads that weave themselves throughout an event or a series of events. Before we go any further here, let me assure you: this post isn’t going to be deep, or at least what passes for deep for me.

No, it’ s just one of those light bulb moments that probably switched on for millions of women before me. Let me explain.

A few days ago, I saw several posts on Facebook showing a princess and her prince – Cinderella, maybe - along with two other characters, and the wardrobes and colors on the drawings were reminiscent of those worn by the party at Westminster a few weeks ago. But for me, I was immediately back on my parents’ front porch, on a warm spring or summer morning, with a coloring book, crayons and nothing but black and white pages that were just waiting for my touch.

I remember sitting there with my sisters and our friends, as we all colored in the pages then looked over each other’s work. Since I didn’t raise girls, and I’m not around them these days, I don’t even know if girls do this anymore. All I know is we had fun more than forty years ago. And here’s what I remember most: if I wanted my pictures to look really spectacular, I would outline them, then darken each detail line before adding the overall color to the entire page. Wow – I could probably be a professional artist, I thought.

So where’s the light bulb? What did this remind me of? Something about those pictures and coloring but something that wasn’t about them and wasn’t about crayons. Something from my current life. I’m getting there.

A day or two after seeing the Facebook pictures, I’m standing in front of the mirror, with no fewer than three tubes or jars of cream in front of me. Believe me, I have plenty to choose from: The eye restoration complex, the positively ageless lifting and firming eye cream, and the divine eyes ultimate youth eye treatment eye contour cream. The deep wrinkle treatment, deep wrinkle night cream, hydra firming cream, age repair lotion (note: the label advises you to consult a doctor if using this on children under six months old), skin firming moisturizer, and dramatically different moisturizing lotion. The reversing Gelee transforming lift and glycolic vital renew. (I don’t even know what that one means.) These represent products from eight different companies.

Don’t get me starting hair products.

Then we have the other extreme: tools and materials to create, not erase, lines. If you were to document the makeup in my cabinet, you’d find at least three pencils: eyebrow, eyeliner, and lip liner. A few of those get pretty regular use, although the eyeliner less so than in years past. Once I’m all moisturized and treated and lifted and restored and repaired every morning (well, almost every morning), the artistry really begins. Because some lines you want to enhance a little and others you need to restore a little.

I dutifully stroke and massage various bits into various parts of my face, and then follow up with the daily “outlining” required to stave off the signs of my life. And it hit me. Who knew? I’ve been training to follow the lines since I was about 6 years old. Every morning, and most nights, I spend a little time exfoliating, gently cleansing and/or foaming away the cares of the day from my face, then follow the lines and the various wrinkles, marks and general blahness of my 50+ skin with some of the products listed above. Except now, instead of highlighting the lines, I’m trying to erase them.

A dubious goal with almost nothing to indicate I’m making any headway.

So the question is this: does the daily ritual satisfy me because it’s an attempt; because at least I’m trying; or is it ultimately just the activity I built around my growing collection of jars and tubes and bottles? And is that collection little more than substitutes for the Crayolas I wielded with such confidence forty-six years ago? Is all of this an attempt to capture a princess moment of my own?

That’s a little depressing.

Maybe it’s really more about the fact that one day, much sooner than I'd ever expected, I find myself absolutely and indisputably in the throes of middle age. I'm surrounded by co-workers who could be my children. In fact, I'm one of the oldest people in the department. And I think: if all this is true, why don’t I know more about life? Why am I still so mystified on a daily basis? How am I getting so much of it wrong?

I admit the following: I don’t know the formula or the perfect ingredients for a blissful, idyllic marriage. I don’t know how to raise children that will never take a wrong turn. I’m often conflicted, often doubtful, often full of trepidation. Somewhere along the line, I thought confidence and certainty would come along with aging. All I got were the lines.

So maybe I can’t spend time outlining the folds of a princess dress in a coloring book and then coloring it in. I get it; I can’t quite list that as an “interest” on my resume. But I can outline my lips with a perfect shade of reddish gold and color them in. Some days, that will have to suffice as the only thing grown up thing about me.

Friday, May 13, 2011

On proms, pleats and Peter Rabbit

Over the past week or two, I've enjoyed reading so many Facebook posts about high school proms, and looking at the pictures of young people enjoying their evenings.

This post is a reflection on my first "prom as a mom" experience, going back to 2006. Whether this is the first or last prom night in your house, I hope the parents who read it find a moment they recognize in it. Do we all feel something like this as the experience unfolds?


On one hand, I watched the tuxedo-ordering event for the senior prom unfold in bemused silence. Never had so many questions about so many details been posed to so few people who had not one definite answer between them. And why would they? Who ever imagined how many choices you have in a formal wear shop? Suit without stripes, suit with stripes. Long or regular length jacket? Shirt with one inch, half inch or quarter inch pleats? Maybe no pleats. Bow tie or not, in black or in a coordinating color, striped or plain? Vest or cummerbund? In black or matching color or coordinating pattern? Jewelry: all black, black and silver or black and gold? Shoes: round or square toe style? Oxfords or loafers? I didn’t make this many decisions about what I wore to my wedding.

We began with the sample tuxes on display in the store, samples that turned out to be not quite right. After paging through a catalog to find just the right one, my son and his girlfriend made another half a dozen choices (see above) before finalizing the entire transaction.

On the other hand, as I watched the sales clerk help my son into a jacket and smooth it out to make sure of the size, I was terrified. The fit was very nearly perfect, and he buttoned it with confidence as his girlfriend nodded that it looked good. I thought so, too, but as I think back on it, the tuxedo jacket kind of disappears. In my mind, I see my two-year-old lay his little winter coat out of the floor, slip his hands into the sleeves, and flip it over his head to show me he can do it “all by self.”

The white dress shirt he selected was a very distant relative of the t-shirts and casual clothes I see daily. The crisp quarter-inch (not half-inch, not full inch) pleats would create just the right look under the black vest. The sales clerk took his collar and sleeve measurements, and in my mind, I remember another ‘dress’ shirt he used to have: the little blue one from pre-school days. I see him wearing it over his t-shirts - unbuttoned - because “Peter Rabbit never buttons his blue jacket.”

I noticed the shine of the dress leather shoes, the final touch that would add the perfect formality to the evening clothes. He reviewed the choices and decided on the round, not the squared off style. In my mind, he stands before a row of shoes in a discount store. I see him search the display for sneakers that feature his favorite cartoon or movie hero of the day, complete with lights in the rubber soles. He and his brothers would wear out those Velcro light-up shoes before they would outgrow them. “Watch me, Mommy! Watch how fast I can run with these!”

They selected a tie that will match her dress perfectly and add a touch of color to the black and white formal wear. But I look past that one and instead see the dozens of clip-ons and bow ties - so tiny! - he used to wear. I see Daddy teaching him and his brothers how to tie a “real” tie.

On our way home that evening, we talked about flowers. I felt just a little delighted - and surprised - when he casually named his girlfriend’s favorite flower. When did he find that out? Does he know my favorite flower? (Do I even have one? Am I losing my mind?)

The whole event was more than the sum of its parts. Yes, it was about a special suit of clothes and a dance and a girl but it was more than that, too. I didn’t realize it at the time but we walked through an unmarked door, my oldest son and I, and it’s unlikely we’ll be able to turn back. The sign on the store indicated a formal wear shop but it should have read: This way to adulthood. There was a moment during the tuxedo rental experience when I watched him change just a little bit, right before my eyes. I had those familiar feelings of displacement I’d felt occasionally over the past few years.

But this was more than another sappy, corny “Sunrise, Sunset” moment. This time the feelings arrived all dressed up, proud and confident, complete with a pocket square, a set of cufflinks and shiny shoes. They were inescapable. And impressive. And in my mind, they were unforgettable.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Today’s fun marketing fact: Condescension has no age limit.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about an annoying little ad campaign that implored women to “have a happy period.” The idea that a company did enough research, then focus-grouped and tested the idea of labeling a healthy fact of female life as “happy” in order to convince women that we could actually endure – and enjoy! – menstruating for about forty years or so felt incredibly condescending to me.

As I noted, it would seem that men never have to endure marketing campaigns that label certain necessary products as “happy” in order for them to buy them. Example: Have a happy shave! Or how about this: Don’t worry about that annoying jock itch – be happy! Or this: Don’t call it ‘having to get up from a sound sleep to pee in the middle of the night. Call it claiming your own happy moment of peace in the still of the night.’ See what I mean? Sounds ridiculous, right?

Apparently, women’s products can’t get marketed and sold based on their attributes, benefits and price. I don’t need to feel an emotional connection or create some sort of bond with a tampon before I’ll purchase it but you'd never know that based on the commercials that sell us these.

Well the good news for me as I grow older is that if there is a God in heaven, soon enough I can stop caring about having a happy period (or even an unhappy one as a matter of fact. Fingers crossed, I’ll celebrate that occasion in about five months.) The bad news is that the hits just keep on coming. A few years ago, I read about – and then hoped online to experience – a place called Menopauseland. I’m not joking. Yes, exactly like Disneyland, except it’s Menopauseland.

Well, not exactly. Menopauseland was a cyber community, courtesy of Amerifit brands and their supplement, Estroven, developed to ease the symptoms of menopause. According to BrandBuzz, the creative agency behind M-land, their goal was to reach the “fastest-growing user group of the Internet,” women of a certain age. Their microsite on the web enabled them to learn more about their customers and hone their message even more effectively as a result of the research they could conduct and measure.

Their national television commercial depicted a menopausal – well, I assume she was supposed to be in menopause – woman, enjoying the delights of a gorgeous, sunny, private spa-like retreat, complete with an anonymous cabana-boy type of guy handing over a towel and massaging her shoulders after she emerges from the pool. Her voiceover narrated a postcard she dropped in the mail to a friend: something about the fact that despite the many kinds of travels she’s taken throughout her life, she’s never been anywhere as liberating as “here.” I guess we were supposed to assume the cabana boy had something to do with that liberation but it’s unclear.

The narration continued and informed women about how Estroven could help them manage their “journey” into another life stage beyond menopause.

Fine. Lovely. I hope Estroven eases symptoms many women could find annoying or even debilitating. But that’s not really my point. I’m back to the same thing I asked about having a “happy period.” What are we – six years old? It feels like any company marketing women’s products to women needs to convince us that we can – and should – have fun while we deal with somewhat intrusive (but healthy) life stages. In other words, there is no need to be down in the dumps about cramps, mood swings, hot flashes and night sweats. Pre-menopausal women who don’t feel joyful every 28 days or so simply need to adjust their attitudes and instead enjoy their happy periods. And thanks to Menopauseland, women who somehow don’t understand the bliss connected to the end of their child-bearing years need to hop onboard an express train to Menopauseland to savor the journey and get their heads on straight.

I’m absolutely positive that no other generation of women – women by the millions who passed through menopause without so much as a hint of something called Menopauseland – would have sat quietly by and witnessed such nonsense. But this isn’t any other generation. It’s Baby Boomers, the generation that demands all new rules all the time for all that life has to offer. According to an article in The New York Times, “baby boomers by the millions are entering menopause, and its talked about in the open.” Amerifit's research informed them that women believe “Menopause isn’t the end of anything; it’s the beginning, it’s positive.”

Fine. Lovely. If that's true, why create a cyber-theme park called Menopauseland to convince us? Can’t we learn about Estroven and how it may ease some symptoms without making it a playland? Oh, that’s right. It’s because we’re women. If we’re not happy, we're not going to have fun. And if we’re not going to have fun, we’re going to pout and be bitchy to everyone around us.

Estroven seems to have found a moment of clarity because I think they closed down Menopauseland. At least I couldn’t find it on their website. They’ve updated their campaign. Now their commercials show women holding up signs, signs that ostensibly “say something good about menopause.” Whatever.

Look, I’m all for clever and captivating marketing and advertising campaigns. But that doesn’t require a patronizing, juvenile or aggravating attitude. We need women communicating the truth to women, yes? Without the cutesy nonsense?

Don’t count on it. More to come in the next “women’s” post. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The road not taken might be the way home.

When I’m around new moms, I play a role I never imagined: the elder statesman (stateswoman?) among working mothers. Women in the forty-plus demographic embody the first generation of “modern” women who earned degrees and entered the workplace in large numbers. Somewhere along the line, many of us married, had children, and kept our day jobs. I guess that makes us the prototype for the next generation.

I find myself facing younger mothers, full of questions and incredulity, mostly of the “how did you ever do all this?” or “how did you make this look so easy?” variety. As they look to me for words of wisdom - big mistake - I look back at them and their young children and think, ‘So soon! This stage will be over and you’ll wonder how it all flashed by so quickly.’

Yes, caring for babies and chasing toddlers is exhausting. You learn how to interpret almost every move your child makes and figure out how to meet his or her every need. It’s rewarding and exciting because as they grow, you watch them - day by day, inch by inch - become the person they were born to be.

But the older my children get, the more they teach me about being a mother. They’re teaching me to listen; that it doesn’t really matter how tired I am on any given night, or what I may have on my “to do” list. The “on call” aspect of motherhood that begins with overnight feedings doesn’t ever really go away. Example: when one of them wanders into the TV room at eleven p.m. and sinks into a chair across the room, it’s time to perk up and be ready to listen. At that moment, he’s reaching out, even in the most unobtrusive way, to say, “please listen to me” and sometimes the words aren’t the most important part of the exchange.

They’re teaching me to relax. When they were growing up, the best part of our lives mostly happened around the dinner table, four or five nights a week, when we talked and laughed to see where that would lead us. The dinner table has fewer people around it these days but when it’s full, we usually sit around for hours and unwind together. We solve nothing; we debate everything; we challenge each other; we tell incredible stories. Their beliefs and their point of view on everything from Princess Eugenie’s hat (a total non-issue for them) to a madman in a mansion in Pakistan (a very big deal) captivate me.

Years from now, I hope I’ll remember what amazing memories they had for details about absolutely everything. I know I’ll remember their unquenchable thirst for random yet interesting facts. I’ll hear the music they made in the house every night. Every day, even now as they are beyond high school and making their way into adulthood, they teach me that they’re so much more than the “numbers” we use to measure our children, so much more than projects and grades and tests.

As young adults, they’re pulling me – reluctantly – into the next stage of being a mother. The one where you observe, and offer a thought or two that may just have some basis in reality but nonetheless feels intrusive and smothering to the recipient. The one that teaches you to have patience, and trust that they'll reach out if they need any of the following: help, a shoulder to cry on, a trusted confidant, a place to vent, an objective observer, or money. The one where you want to scream – and sometimes do: “Please, please trust me! You’re making an enormous mistake!” But you try to convince yourself that some mistakes may have to happen once, just so they never happen again.

They’re teaching me, incrementally and relentlessly, how to let go. I remember one night years ago, when one of the boys was upset about an audition at school. He wouldn’t share many details, except to tell me that he “blew it . . . I was terrible.” I tried to reassure him that he almost certainly did better than he imagined but he refused to discuss it.

Turns out, he did want to talk about it - just not to me. He spent at least an hour on the phone with a friend - a girl - and she was able to give him the comfort I couldn’t. This was becoming more and more the norm.

I felt lost. I felt disposable and replaced and irrelevant. I also felt - reluctantly - enlightened and proud to watch him as he “grew up.” It was natural that he would want turn outward - to a girlfriend - for the reassurance he needed. It was right that he should begin to loosen the ties I worked so hard to weave. But still, it felt strange.

Before he went to sleep, I shared some of these feelings with him. I told him I understood he needed some independence and privacy. When I hugged him goodnight, I said something like, “I get it - but I miss you.”

He seemed to “get it” too, and reassured me quietly, “I’ll come back.”

Here’s the thing: I’m trying to balance the “spread your wings and fly” schmaltz with the “why don’t you ever call [or text or Facebook or IM] your mother??” guilt trips. Haven’t quite worked that out yet. The reality is this: I want to admire their independence. I want to watch them grow and find their way and build a life. But I also want them to remember that sometimes, the road not taken during times of trouble might be the one that leads home.

I don’t NEED any of my boys to come back home in order to feel fulfilled or “successful” as a mom. I just want them to know they can. And I’ll be here.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Still not completely there but at least I'm moving again.

The best that can be said about April is that it's over.

The miles I put into the record book were nothing compared to the days that were marked off with big X’s instead of mileage through the cold hard month of April. It was frustrating to feel like I was 92 not 52, and watch the days tick by with nothing but inactivity to show for them. But the month is over and we’ve moved on to May.

You may recall that sciatica sidelined me for about two weeks. In fact, according to my grid, I didn’t run a single step from April 6 until April 20. All I could think was, “Well, this is no good! This isn’t getting me any closer to “Can’t even find it on a GPS, Canada,” which is a northern suburb of Toronto. Plus, Joe was getting WAY ahead of me on his run to the balmy south.

But the good news is, I had somehow banked a couple of miles ahead of my quota. Put it this way: Although I ended April about seven miles behind in my monthly goal, I’m not behind on my annual goal. So far on the year, despite my month on and off the DL, I’ve remained about 8 miles ahead of my goal.

The better news is I seem to have recovered my health. Nothing like a debilitating ache to remind you to be grateful for simple mobility. So where am I? Almost 160 miles north of Allentown, just south of Sebring, PA, near the Tioga State Forest. It looks very lush on the Google map; I can only hope the scenery would take my mind off the not 100% comfort I have in my right leg were I really running along the trail.

I’ve been taking it a little slow – still getting in a 5k or near it with every run but it’s taking me a little longer, or I find myself walking about a quarter mile or so. I’m giving myself until the end of May to get back to “my” time which is not at all fast but is comfortable for me: a 9 ½ minute mile or so. Then I’ll start to add some speed or distance or both.

For now: I’m grateful to be upright and mobile. For anyone keeping track: that’s four months in; eight to go. As of today, I’ve logged about 161 miles and have 288 to go. That’s just over 36 miles a month for the rest of the year. Or about 9 miles a week. About 2.25 miles a day, 4 days a week.

I figure by this time next month, I’ll have entered New York or be very, very close. And if Lawrenceville, New York is close, can Toronto, Ontario be far behind? Well, yes. Yes, it certainly can be.

But I’ll get there.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

In honor of the happy couple....

Read an article today in Us, or People, or OK or something like while I was indulging in that great spring equalizer among women: the pedicure. Because of the article and the worldwide romance we've all witnessed over the past few days, I'm re-posting a column that appeared a few months ago on Jewish World Review.

Now, this should by no means imply that Catherine Middleton Windsor did any such preparation for her big day. But she and her Prince do seem to have found their "ever after."

Sadly, at least someone who sends a daughter to Princess Prep must believe a dream can come true for their own little darling.

Hope you enjoy.