Archive for January, 2011

The Look of Love

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“Monkey, you look loved.”

Those were the words our nanny spoke as she and IEP were picking up toys at the end of the day.  Monkey (pictured) is the starting quarterback on IEP’s team of stuffed animals.  There is also a sea lion from the Oregon coast, a bear from the gift shop at The Masters, a mouse from Nanny, a lamb from Williamsburg, and a sock monkey (from Target…).  But Monkey is the favorite.  Monkey helped IEP give up his pacifiers.  Monkey helps IEP sleep in new and different places.  Monkey comforts IEP when he is sick or scared.  He is as much a part of IEP’s life as any of the rest of us.  And it shows.

His seams are worn.  His coat is soft, but pilled in places.  His once-stiff limbs now flop easily.  He’s “gone swimming” with the laundry many, many times.  He hasn’t quite reached the Skin Horse’s description in The Velveteen Rabbit, but I suspect one day he will.

Nanny’s comment came at an opportune time.  As it turns out, Monkey isn’t the only creature who’s been on my mind lately who “looks loved.”  We spent the weekend celebrating the life of GAP’s grandmother.  She, too, looked loved.  Her body was frail and her skin was wrinkled.  And yet she was still completely beautiful.  Much like Monkey, and the Skin Horse, and ultimately, the Velveteen Rabbit himself, she was loved, and she was real, and she could never be ugly.

This trifecta of thoughts (Monkey, GAP’s grandmother, and The Velveteen Rabbit) has been dancing in my head for several days now and has prompted me to think further about how we define beauty, and what we may give up in its pursuit.

We work so hard in this life to have big experiences.  We embrace laughter and hardship.  We travel.  We stay home.  We get sick.  We get well.  We fall in and out of love.  We break hearts and have our hearts broken.  We learn and forget and remember.  We want, more than anything, to live our lives fully and to be a reflection of this vast set of experiences.  And yet at the same time we work hard to look just as we did when we were young and green and largely stupid.  We dye our hair.  We don our Spanx.  We have facials and Botox and plastic surgery.  We try to shed years in every way possible which to me (a regular with my colorist since the age of 24) is paradoxical.

Nearly by definition, we can’t know much of anything when we are 18.  And nearly by definition we can’t help but know almost everything when we are 81.   If we are very lucky we will all live a very long time.  We will scrape our knees and our hearts.  We will double over in laughter.  And we will love to the brink of implosion.  Life will leave its mark on us.

At the age of 33 I still contend with a certain amount of vanity.  But in the long run I think I want to be like Monkey.  I want people to look at me and say, “She looks loved.”  Because ultimately, little else matters as much.

I Will Wear Red

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Tomorrow morning I will gather with the rest of GAP’s family for his grandmother’s memorial service.  GME (her initials, in keeping with my naming conventions on this blog) passed away last Friday and it was sad, but also a blessing.  After 93 beautiful years here she has gone home – to a place where her frail body can no longer limit her and where she has joined her husband for the first time in seven years.

GME was one of the most honest, curious, and lovely people I have ever known.  She is a testament to what this blog is about, and was a role model for me as I transitioned from a late-blooming adolescent into a grown woman.  And so it is that today I dedicate this post to her, and just a few of the reasons she will be so dearly missed.

She raised five kind and generous children, one of whom is my mother-in-law, who in turn raised six kind and generous children, one of whom is my beloved husband.

She had a passion for music and raised a family of carolers.  In keeping with their tradition that was founded back in the ’50s and ’60s her kids take their own children caroling to nursing homes (a massive group of nearly 30 now) every Christmas.

She was a reader.  Any time we visited her she asked GAP what he’d been reading (inevitably something political and challenging) and would ask to borrow it.  In turn, she would make margin notes in anything she read and would pass it along to GAP when she finished so they could discuss it.

She loved rain.  As a farmer’s wife she loved looking out the window to see darkening skies because it meant that her hardworking husband  could not go out into the fields and would instead be at home with her.

She was stubborn and humble.  In her later years as many of her grandchildren were getting married she was unable to walk down the aisle as part of the formal processional without the aid of a wheelchair or walker.  So she made sure that she was seated before the ceremony started so as not to draw attention to herself.

After September 11th she was curious about Islamic extremism and how it evolved.  Rather than plunge into day over day of cable news she ordered a copy of the Koran and read it to gain a better understanding of the religion itself and what might have prompted those men to do what they did.

She had eyes that sparkled with life.  No matter how many years her skin betrayed, her eyes were young until the very end.

And, all she wanted out of life was for the people she loved to be happy.  She hated all manner of sadness and was not one to indulge in it under nearly any circumstances.  And so it is that tomorrow’s service comes with strict instructions.  It is to be short.  It is not to be sad.  Men are not to wear suits.  We are all to wear bright colors.  And there is to be pizza afterwards.

GME was not perfect.  But she came awfully close.  Between life and death she chose the better option, but she will still be acutely missed for a long time.  I am thankful that I will live the rest of my life as a member of the family she raised.  Her life and beliefs will be imprinted on my own for the rest of my life, and I am better for it.

I was reminded of this last night.  We arrived at my in-laws’ house late in the evening.  After sleeping in the car IEP was eager to play for a bit prior to being put down.  Our bedtime routine includes a handful of books each night, followed by IEP curling up in GAP’s or my lap, rocking in the glider, and being sung to for a few minutes.  Last night my mother-in-law (E, for those who are frequent readers of comments here) was up to bat for bedtime duties.  As I listened on the monitor I heard her sing “Bless this House” to my baby.  It was the song that her family ended all of their caroling stops with so many years ago.  And it is the song that the entire family will sing together at her memorial service tomorrow.  It was late, she was singing quietly, and her typically strong voice cracked in a few places.  But I could hear GME coming through loud and clear.  And I was thankful, once again, for this woman whose life is now intertwined with mine forever.

Apple TV: Friend or Foe?

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

There have been many times in my marriage when I’ve stopped to appreciate the fact that GAP is not a technology junkie. He is certainly a fan of a flat screen television and surround sound. But he is not the type to be constantly upgrading to newer equipment just because it’s available. However, for his recent birthday I took the plunge on his behalf and got him AppleTV.

Since we installed it we have been amazed at the ease of use and instantaneous access to a huge variety of video content. No trips to Blockbuster (ahh, the olden days). No waiting for DVDs to show up in our mailbox. No scanning the DVR to see if there’s anything stashed that might be worth watching. All of this content is available to us with the click of a tiny aluminum remote control. It really is incredible.

GAP and I, however, can’t leave well enough alone. We have to go and wax philosophical about these things. Which is why he said to me last weekend, “Think about how isolating this kind of technology could be.”

Wow. Talk about a buzz kill…

The thing is, though, he’s right. What if you were single and shy? And what if you worked from home? And what if you lived in Manhattan (or some other big city) and could have anything you want delivered right to your door? You could easily live a quite contented existence without ever leaving your home.

I have long sung the praises of doing things alone. In fact, I get a little soapbox-y about it. I think it is a fantastically valuable life skill to be comfortable doing things alone – going to movies or the theatre, going to a sporting event, sitting in a restaurant, traveling, and so on. I really believe that there is much we miss in life if we require a companion for everything. So naturally, when GAP made this statement to me, my wheels went into overdrive. I started thinking about people who may recoil into themselves because they never have to leave the house again. They will lose all of their social skills. We will become a nation of hermits. … I went a bit far afield with it, truth be told.

Then GAP said, “But think about shut-ins. Think about elderly people who literally can’t get out to a movie. Think about how this kind of technology actually connects those people to the world, rather than segregating them from it.” And then, in the span of less than three minutes he was right again. (It can get irritating when he does this.)

In today’s world I’m sure that AppleTV is well beyond the technological capabilities of the nursing home set. But in 10 or 15 years it won’t be. By then our nation’s elderly will be well versed in the internet, video streaming, and on-demand functionality. And when their grandkids come bounding in buzzing about the latest blockbuster, perhaps Grandmother and Granddad will be able to chime right in.

Like everything else in this world, with freedom and privilege comes responsibility. We create new tools and toys faster than we learn how to incorporate them into our culture. With each new advancement we take risks. But we also reap rewards. We must take care not to paint new developments with the brush of “good” or “bad” before we really understand their ramifications. We must wade into these waters carefully.  But at least in the meantime we can enjoy a good movie.

Dreaming the Wrong Dream

Monday, January 24th, 2011

A Note About This Post:  I originally wrote and published this post one week ago, on Martin Luther King Day.  It lingered here all day, garnering no comments – a first in my blogging existence.  By that evening I was convinced my title had given the wrong impression of my beliefs about Dr. King, so I took it down.  For the full explanation of my actions (and the thought process behind them) you can read last Wednesday’s post, which is available here.  I offer this explanation so that when you reach the end of this post and I write, “Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day…” you will not presume me incapable of reading a calendar, but will realize that this is the second time out of the gate for this post.     

There’s something off about the American dream.

I’ve been thinking about this intermittently for the last month and I’ve finally put my finger on it.  The American dream is too simple.  It is not nuanced or multi-facted.  It is plain, and brute, and a little crass.  Quite plainly, the American dream is financial.

I realize that this country was founded on principles of opportunity  and the freedom to pursue that opportunity.  And these are very worthwhile principles.  But over time we have come to a single, shared interpretation of them: money.  Sure we still value the opportunity to speak freely, congregate as we wish, worship as we believe and so on.  But when we talk about the “American dream” as a concept what we are talking about is the pursuit of fortune.

As a person who likes money and the things it can buy, I realize that there is value in the financial interpretation of this dream.  For people who live paycheck-to-paycheck it is a compelling idea that with hard work and some good luck they could live awash in comfort and luxury.  But for the rest of us who live somewhere in the middle of the socioeconomic strata, I think the American dream makes us myopic.

I started thinking about this last month when Aidan asked the question “Is bigger always better?” When I first commented on Aidan’s post I focused on the implicit expectations of “bigger.”  That is to say, the bigger something is the more we expect of it.  Sometimes we find that when we opt for something smaller we are ultimately happier because we are unburdened by massive and sometimes-unrealistic expectations.  I have thought more about this since then, though, and decided that this diagnosis falls short.

I happened back upon a website I bookmarked a long time ago called The Not So Big Life.   A few years back architect/author Sarah Susanka wrote a book about home scale and design call The Not So Big House.  In it she described how the American dream has eradicated everything we love about our homes.  New houses traded thoughtful design, charm, intimacy, and attention to proportion and scale for carelessly conceived vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and giant open floorplans that leave us feeling unmoored in our own homes.  The success of the book indicated that Susanka had struck a nerve and she went on to apply the same attention to “composition” that she uses in home design to the rest of her life.

Susanka points out how much of our lives are crammed with obligations and activities that we have piled onto our existence without consideration for what value they bring (or what value they destroy).  She argues that we pay little attention to the way that we compose our lives and that as a result we are left with days that are filled to the brim, yet leave us feeling empty.

I wonder how our cultural evolution might have been different if the American dream weren’t about success; or perhaps rather if success were measured by some yardstick other than the dollar sign.  Might we live in homes that were designed with more regard for our needs and less regard for our reputations?  Might we think more carefully about the ways we choose to spend our time?  And might we be more inclined to say “No” every now and then, leaving more space in our lives for things that really matter?  If the American dream didn’t drive us to prove our success to the rest of the world would we find ourselves happier, and with less?

At this time of year our New Year’s Resolutions are still fresh in our minds.  Mine focused on ways that I can improve myself, my relationships, and my imprint on the world.  As I thought about how I want to be different in 2011 the pursuit of fortune and the acquisition of more material belongings did not factor into the equation.  I think this is true for most of us.  When we really take time to consider the aspects of ourselves and our lives that matter the most we get it right.  I think the problem is that we spend so little time really considering them.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Today we will think about his dream for America.  We will laud his vision and applaud his leadership, and rightly so.  We should also remember, however, that his dream – perhaps the most noble of any dream dreamt by an American – had nothing to do with bigger begetting better.  Tomorrow, when the commemorations have passed and we are back at our regular lives, we would do well to remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting more from our lives.  But we should ask ourselves “more of what?”

The Royal On-Deck Circle

Friday, January 21st, 2011

You would think that after nearly 60 years under a female monarch it would be a no brainer for the UK to amend its succession laws.  Not so fast.  It seems it’s more complicated than that.

Mixed into the fuss about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding (which I’m guilty of following) I came across this article about the laws of succession.  As the law stands today, the firstborn male descendent of the sitting monarch is first in line for the throne.  If Prince William had been a girl, Prince Harry would be on deck after his father, and his sister would be a royal footnote.

Apparently the current law was set into place with the 1701 Act of Settlement.  While I don’t mean to oversimplify things, I’ll go ahead and say that I’m pretty sure things have changed a little bit since then.  Not surprisingly many people find the current laws “antiquated and sexist” so I can only assume that an amendment giving female royal offspring the same rights as their male counterparts would enjoy reasonably broad support.

From my perspective it seems that this is the most opportune time to implement this kind of change.  Since QE2′s first child was male (Prince Charles) and his first child was male (Prince William) changing the law now would do nothing to upset the existing succession plan.  Further, with a long-standing and well-respected queen on the throne I think any argument about how a man is more qualified or suited to fill the role of monarch is basically indefensible.

So if the time is right to make this change, what’s taking so long?  I realize that the British monarchy is not exactly an institution of progressivism and social reform.  But gender discrimination was outlawed in Britain in 1975.  These are hardly cutting edge ideas.  At this point we’re talking about just catching up.  What are the British people and lawmakers holding onto?

The reason this issue interests me is not really because I have a particular interest in the British monarchy – though I will be tuning in for the wedding – but because it piques my curiosity about the way we approach tradition.  The British monarchy is, at this point, a tradition.  It is symbolic.  It is a point of pride and source of comfort for many Britons.  But this sexist aspect of it has lasted into the 21st century for no apparent reason other than as a function of tradition.

I firmly believe that traditions are important and valuable.  They help us stay in touch with our roots.  They remind us of people and places that aren’t with us anymore.  They provide us an intimacy and kinship to our own lives that gives them meaning.  But the thing about traditions is that sometimes we abide by them mindlessly.  Sometimes we forget how they emerged in the first place.  And sometimes they cease to serve their intended purpose and are merely an empty shell of something that doesn’t exist anymore.  And in situations like that – like this – by continuing the tradition we actively honor something that perhaps shouldn’t be honored.

It is hard to break with tradition.  I get that.  But when a tradition can’t be earnestly advocated – when it exists for the sake of tradition alone – that’s when it’s probably time to find the next tradition.

Vanishing Act

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

If you stopped by this blog on Monday between the hours of 6:30am and 6:00pm you saw my regular Monday post.  If you stopped by this blog after 6:00pm on Monday, you saw the prior Friday’s post.   Without explanation of any kind, POOF! Monday’s post had vanished.  An act of magic?  Or an act of fear?

Early Monday morning I wrote a post which I really loved.  It was a post that I’d been mulling over for a few weeks and had finally found the words to express.  I wrote about how I think the “American dream” falls short because it focuses so much on financial prosperity and pays no attention to the aspects of life (relationships, meaning, thoughtful use of our time, etc.) that are actually much more important influencers of our overall level of happiness.  I wrote about how our passion for proving our success to other people has prompted us to sacrifice careful cultivation of our lives around the things that actually matter most to us.  I titled this post “Dreaming the Wrong Dream.”

My day progressed as usual and periodically throughout the morning and afternoon I checked in on my post to read and approve comments.  With each login I found the usual collection of spam comments, but nothing else.  I didn’t let it bother me at first, but as more time passed I grew anxious about my post.  I’ve written many posts that didn’t resonate with throngs of people.  But I’d never gone a full day without a single response.  I was stunned at the volume of silence.

I realized, in retrospect, that on MLK Day all references to dreams imply his dream.  ”The” dream.  The dream that was more honest and noble than any other dream before or since.  The dream that moved a nation.  The dream that boomed across the national mall.  The dream that we honor every year for its valor and candor and truth.

And then I panicked.

I worried that people had read the title of my post, expected something totally different from what I actually wrote, and clicked away immediately.  I was sure that someone had gotten no further than the title, exclaimed to himself, “How dare she!” and left.  And I worried that every last reader felt that I had suggested something pejorative of Dr. King.  I was scared out of my overly-articulated wits.  I did consider the fact that on a holiday many people might not have really kicked off their weeks yet; that regular blog-reading and commenting hadn’t quite resumed from its weekend hiatus.  But once my other fears settled in there was no room in my mind for a more likely scenario.

And so, feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I took the post down – something I’d never done before.

In the time that has passed since I tucked my tail between my legs on Monday evening I’ve gotten affirmation from my husband and a dear friend that the post was a good one – “thoughtful and meaty.”  I’ve been encouraged to repost it.  And I’m feeling more confident that a slow day in the blogosphere might be a function of a thousand things other than an ill-timed title.

I’ve always said to those who ask that I write this blog for myself, and I do.  Naturally I hope that my thoughts and words will strike a chord with my readers and will elicit thought-provoking responses.  But when the day ends if a post falls flat my ego doesn’t typically follow.  In this case I wasn’t so much bothered by not getting comments as I was by the fact that I thought I may have given people the wrong idea about what I believe.

I suppose the lesson I’ve learned here is that there is real vulnerability in blogging.  In Friday’s post I confessed that my confidence is one aspect of myself I wouldn’t change.  Then just three days later I cowered in the face of massive insecurity.  Despite our best efforts we all have bad days.  We aim and miss.  Our intentions are good but our execution is flawed.  And when we fall short on the stage of the world wide web there is a whole audience watching (thankfully for me in this case my audience is on the small side…).  And that kind of shame is something that even the thickest skin can struggle to withstand.

I don’t know how many of you visited this site on Monday.  I don’t know if you read my post.  I don’t know if you noticed the title and fled for the hills.  But to anyone for whom that is true, please accept my sincerest apology.  Please know that my intentions were good even if my title was carelessly conceived.

I will republish my post next Monday for a number of reasons, but mostly because I still believe in it.

Stuart Smalley for the Modern Woman

Friday, January 14th, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions can be dangerous territory for people whose confidence is shaky.  Here we sit, at the front door of a new year, and, almost like offering a secret password, we are invited to make all kinds of promises about how we will improve before we walk inside.  I’m a believer in New Year’s Resolutions because I believe that there is always room for at least modest self-improvement (also because I love a project).  But I can easily remember the dawn of 1994 when I was an insecure sophomore in high school.  I laid out an impossible list of arbitrary resolutions that encompassed everything from journaling to my weight to my golf game.

My self-destructive perfectionism at that time is a story for another day.  (And I can happily tell you now that a few months later I blew off my high maintenance list and began accepting myself as I was.)  However, each December as I lay out my best intentions for the coming year I think back on my 16-year-old self as a reminder of how depressing and overwhelming resolutions run amok can become.  I make a point to remind myself that I have lots of great qualities too.

I thought more about this premise of “what’s good about me” this week when a pair of posts got me to thinking about how we (women in particular) can be so reluctant to admit that there actually are lots of great things about ourselves.  The first post was from Kristen at Motherse who confided that she is, like many women, uncomfortable accepting a compliment.  The second post was from Julia Moulden at The Huffington Post who wrote about an exercise she conducted with a number of women wherein she asked them what quality about themselves they love and would never give up.

I find it disheartening to confront the fact that many women (and many quite remarkable women) are so hard on themselves.  We look in the mirror and we see everything that we wish weren’t.  The crow’s feet.  The smudged, end-of-the-day mascara.  The frazzled parent.  The body that doesn’t look quite like it did before we had babies.  And on, and on, and on.

But what of the things we don’t see?  What of the things we dismiss because we’re sure they don’t count?  What about our curious minds?  What about our well-honed opinions?  What about our laughing children?  What about our rich, time-worn friendships?  What about 30-odd years of experiences and wisdom?  Why don’t we count those things?

When I look at my friends I see a laundry list of admirable qualities.  I see compassion.  I see humor.  I see incredible style.  I see self-deprecation.  I see bravery.  I see shiny, bouncy hair.  I see loyalty.  I see gratitude.  I see money management skills.  I see intellect.  And I see abounding generosity.  But I’m not entirely sure that my friends see these things in themselves.

My first post of 2011 listed my resolutions for the year; things I want to change.  But having thought through it a bit further I think it’s also important to acknowledge the things I’d never change about myself.   I suppose I should follow my own rules, though, so here goes.

Things I would never change about myself:

My love of reading.  My culinary skills.  My commitment to healthy eating and regular exercise.  My upturned nose and sea of freckles.  My confidence.  My inquisitive mind.  And my patience as a mother.

There is a lot about me that I could do better.  But there are quite a few things that are pretty good already.  It’s good to remember that.   I should probably make this list more than once a year.  So should you!

Okay, yout turn.  Don’t leave me hanging.  I think we could all benefit from acknowledging our best traits.  So chime in!

This Bud’s For You (or not…)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

One of the cutest things that IEP does is to take the earbuds from his dad’s iPhone, hold them up to his ears, and bob his head along to the music.  He looks like a tiny little dude and it makes me laugh every time he does it.  Unfortunately, I just learned, if he keeps it up he could end up on a one-way path to hearing loss.

Earlier this week an innocent stroll through the New York Times Sunday Magazine led me to this article on the correlation between headphones and hearing loss.  Apparently the number of teens with some hearing loss has climbed 33% since 1994.  Earbuds, which have become significantly more popular since the launch of the iPod nearly 10 years ago (has it really been that long?), are particularly bad offenders as they block out less background noise prompting users to listen at higher volumes.  It seems that the same man who gave us the chance to conduct our lives to the tunes of a personal soundtrack is also slowly whittling away at our eardrums.  Steve Jobs giveth, and Steve Jobs taketh away.

However, worthwhile a topic as hearing loss is, there was actually another side-effect of headphones that I found more intriguing, namely isolation.  In today’s world earbuds are ubiquitous.  We see them everywhere.  On the subway.  At the gym.  I even see them on people walking around my office during the day.  But what does this little accessory say to other people?  If you go about your life with earbuds forever in place, what is the net effect to our culture?  It prohibits a shared experience.  It mitigates conversation.  And it sends a big visual signal that you are off limits to those around you; that we are off limits to each other.

I have sat on both sides of this fence, and so I struggle to say what is right and what is wrong.  I have sat next to overly talkative people on planes and been grateful that my big headphones (my ears are too small for earbuds…) signaled to the intruder that I was not an appropriate recipient of their chatter.  I have also tried to approach someone at their desk in the office and been frustrated that I was forced to “interrupt” their personal concert to ask a work-related question.

As I think about it I believe there should be some social code surrounding headphone usage.  It’s taken us years to get there, but I think today most people understand the do’s and don’t’s of cell phone etiquette.  Not all people follow them, but we at least have a common understanding of what they are:  Don’t talk loudly in a public place.  Don’t constantly check your phone while someone is trying to have an in-person conversation with you.  If you have to take a call in the middle of a meal or a meeting, excuse yourself first. And so on.

The problem with establishing such a code for headphones is that their usage is, by definition, silent and unobtrusive.  But silent and unobtrusive carry burdens of their own.  We are social creatures.  We live in a society of shared experiences.  If we all self-select out of the collective, what does the collective become?

The NYT article suggests that in 2011 we all unplug from time to time; that we listen to music together.  If we did that a bit more frequently I suspect we might be exposed to something new that we like.  Or we might have an interesting conversation about it.  Walking through your day with a “don’t bother me” sign hanging from your ears might be appealing from time to time.  But if it becomes our default I think we all lose.


Monday, January 10th, 2011

Truly, I have tried mightily to understand the appeal of MTV’s show 16 and Pregnant.  Okay, “mightily” probably overstates it.  But I’ve tried to wrap my head around the concept of this show and I just can’t do it.  I put on my “guilty pleasure” hat and gave it a whirl.  And I found the whole thing utterly lacking.  Let me be clear about one thing up front.  I’m not judging the girls.  They’ve got more than enough challenges on their plates as teen moms without my judgment.  I wish each of them the best of luck in an impossible situation.  What I do question, however, is the show.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a couple of weeks now.  I bought a copy of US Weekly with a teen mom from the show on its cover.  I Tivo’d a 16 and Pregnant reunion special over the weekend.  I wanted to delve into the lives and circumstances of its subjects and learn a bit about them.  I wanted to understand the appeal of their stories.  I wanted figure out why our national culture thinks that the plight of the teen mother is appropriate fodder for our entertainment.

I will confess that I made it through neither the magazine article nor the Tivo’d reunion special.  This is due in part to the fact that my weekends are filled with distractions.  But it is due also in part to the fact that I found the content completely uninteresting.  I don’t think I’m totally out of touch.  I can see the appeal of a show like Jersey Shore.  It’s not really my speed, but having seen a couple of episodes I can understand the train wreck qualities that keep people coming back for more.  But this one lost me.

You know the girls’ lives are going to be disasters.  You know that they are going to be completely ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of new motherhood.  (And that’s before Dr. Drew tells you that only 2% of teen moms obtain college degrees before the age of 30.)  You know that their partners (if they’re still in the picture at all) are going to be overwhelmed and act out in immature ways.  And you know that their lives have been changed forever in ways that the girls themselves won’t fully grasp for years.

Given all this, my question is: Does it do a service or a disservice to all American teens to have a show like this on the air?  Does it encourage or discourage teen pregnancy?  In the short bit that I watched (which included clips from prior episodes) I was impressed by how stark a light the show seemed to cast on its stars; I didn’t think the show glamorized the subject matter.  But I wonder if the mere presence of a show like 16 and Pregnant (and its ability to turn teen moms into little celebrities) puts the wrong idea in other young girls’ heads.

I was 31 years old when I became a mother.  I’d been married for nearly five years.  My husband and I both had educations, jobs, and supportive families.  And we still struggled with the transition into parenthood.  Had our family started any earlier – by choice or happenstance – I’m sure we would have struggled even more than we did.  I remember saying to him in those early weeks many times, “Can you imagine if we didn’t have a strong marriage?”

Teen pregnancy isn’t a joke.  It isn’t just a fun indulgence like most other reality television topics.  I don’t find it entertaining to watch, but obviously other people do.  Given that, I wonder what the net effect on the teen psyche of such a show is.  Teens are impressionable.  I just don’t know which impression we’re leaving with this one.

And I Love Her

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Earlier this week I attended a business dinner with several colleagues.  With the social lubrication of a drink under our belts the conversation veered from professional to personal realms.  Younger members of the group complained of approaching 30th birthdays.  Older members of the group traded war stories of raising teenagers.  And eventually one member of the group told the story of how he got together with his wife.

This man is usually all business, so it was refreshing to hear him speak so candidly about his personal life.  Since he was a bit older (40-ish) when he married, embedded into his story was the following synopsis of how his selection criteria in a potential wife changed as he aged:

When I was in my early twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful.  And I love her.”

When I was in my mid-twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful and she’s funny.  And I love her.”

When I was in my late twenties I thought, “She’s beautiful and she’s funny and she’s smart.  And I love her.”

When I was in my early thirties I thought, “She’s smart and she’s funny and she’s rather pretty.  And I love her.”

When I was in my mid-thirties I thought, “She’s smart and she’s got a solid career and she’s funny and she’s really somewhat attractive.  And I love her.”

When I was in my late thirties I thought, “She’s level headed and I enjoy her company and she’s not altogether bad looking.  And I love her.”

And when I hit 40 I thought, “This is really someone I can work with for a long time.”

I suppose if I were this man’s wife and I wanted to choose the most objectionable interpretation of his story I could be offended that he seems to be implying that it was only after he lowered his standards six or seven times that he found himself interested in marrying me.  But having heard his little litany firsthand I can vouch that this isn’t how he meant it at all.

Rather, what he meant to convey was how foolish we can be in our youth.  When we are 22 appearances are paramount.  But by the time we turn 30 we need more.  We need someone we can relate to, someone who can have a conversation, someone who is fun.  And as we age further we need more still.  We need compatibility.  Give and take.  Balance.  Trust.  Fulfillment.  And a thousand other things that mere beauty can’t deliver. 

If you think about it his standards actually increased over time.  Finding a beautiful man/woman?  Not so hard.  Finding a man/woman you want to build a life with?  A Herculean task.

What I find curious about this little phenomenon of evolving tastes is that it takes us so long to figure out what really matters.  Do 20-year-olds not care about a decent conversation?  Do they not care about a good laugh?  Do they not care about common interests and values?  Or is it that at such a young age the need for real compatibility seems so far off that in our youth we indulge ourselves in the qualities we know can’t matter as much when we start to look at “forever”?

I like to think that I had a better-than-average head on my shoulders back then.  In retrospect, I know I didn’t.  So I suppose the fact that I ended up with a handsome husband is either a function of dumb luck or hard work.  Actually, I think it’s a bit of both.