Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Jitterbug

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories was watching my mom and dad do the Jitterbug. They were good. And I was in awe.

I believed that they had won some championship when they were in high school. They were champion Jitterbuggers. This may have been entirely something I just wanted to believe, and even as a young teenager, watching them at my Bat Mitzvah or a cousin’s wedding, I would banish the thought that I should check to make sure this was true.

They were championship Jitterbuggers. They won the Carrie Kaufman Championship. That’s all that counted.

But I wasn’t alone in my awe. People would actually pull back on the dance floor to watch my parents; much, I thought, like people pulled back to watch George Bailey and Mary Hatch doing the Charleston before falling into the pool.

My parents were movie star Jitterbuggers. And it was a wonderful life.

They tried to teach me a few times. It didn’t take. Here’s the thing about dance: it’s incredibly sexist. When two people dance together, one has to be the “boy” and one has to be the “girl.” So when my parents tried to teach my brother and I to Jitterbug, I would inevitably have to be the “girl.” And it’s not that I didn’t really want to be the girl. Well, it’s not totally that I didn’t want to be the girl. It’s that the anchor, the real talent of this Jitterbug team, was my mother. I didn’t have a chance of being that good. It was easier to be the boy. But my parents couldn’t get their imaginations around it. So the nights we tried always ended with me not learning how to Jitterbug.

But I was still in awe.

My children are dancers, and they’re pretty good. They are “serious” and they plan what year they’re going to be on So You Think You Can Dance. This is encouraged by my mother, who may never have been a dance champion, but who wanted to be.

I have seen the feeling I had for my parents’ Jitterbugging in my children’s eyes. But it wasn’t for dance, it was for singing. One of my most cherished memories as a mom is singing to them as they took a bath, and watching them fall completely silent as they stared at me with awe.

I am a champion singer. I’ve won the Dixelaney Championship. That’s all that counts.

My children don’t think I’m a very good dancer. This may have been encouraged by my ex, who always laughed at me when I danced. I suspect the laughter could have been because I dance with abandon, and my ex doesn’t do well with abandon. But I am completely open to the prospect that I may not be a very good dancer.

So my children were wondering the other day how they got to be such good dancers. I’m holding back the information that their sperm donor’s brother is a choreographer. TMI on the sperm donor for now. So I told them that grandma and grandpa were dance champions.

They were in awe.

So last night, when my parents arrived for their week long Dixelaney Birthday and Chanukah visit, the girls asked them to Jitterbug for them.

Let’s stop and do some background here for a second. You may have noticed that I have been writing about my parents’ Jitterbugging days in the past tense. They were great Jitterbuggers. They’re now in their early 70s, and while there are plenty of people in their early 70s who can dance, if not all night, then at least half the night, my parents aren’t them.

My mother, for about 30 years now, has been dealing with a muscle tissue disease in the Lupus family. That’s apparently about as specific as one can get with Lupus. She started off with Raynaud's Syndrome which is still prominent. My father jokes that she’s an All-American: her fingers start out white, turn red and then turn blue. I worry about her when she comes up during December. It’s cold in Chicago. It’s not cold in Las Vegas, where they live and where I grew up. But their granddaughters are here. And their granddaughters were born just days before Christmas. My mother hasn’t missed a birthday yet. Blue fingers be damned.

But it’s not just the fingers. This is a muscle tissue disease. The heart is a muscle. The lungs are a muscle. She has a pacemaker and is frequently short of breath.

She does not Jitterbug. Anymore.

Here’s the thing, though: you wouldn’t know my mother was sick just by looking at her. Yes, when we are out (usually, with my daughters, shopping), she will occasionally stop and hold onto something, or someone, and catch her breath. On what she calls her “bad days,” we have to use the handicap sign so she doesn’t have to walk so far into the store or restaurant. But any suggestion that perhaps we should stay home, that she should rest, is met with a blank, uncomprehending stare. Why in the world, she seems to be thinking, would you even suggest that?

My parents go out all the time. My parents go out more than I do. My parents, as older people, go out more than I ever did.

Shortness of breath be damned.

My father is another story. He has been strong as a mule all his life. His only issue is that he’ bit overweight (come on, my dad READS this blog) and has developed type 2 diabetes. Still, he has never been on insulin and doesn’t do much to watch his food intake and it hasn’t bitten him in the ass in the way something like that can scare the hell out of you. At least not yet.

This summer, he had back surgery. Spinal stenosis, to be exact. When he checked into the hospital, the nurse asked my mom about the last time my dad was in the hospital. Her answer was, “Never.” Which is why it was surprising that he had some trouble recovering. At one point, he passed out, and my mother had to grab a phone to call an ambulance while trying to hold him up.

And then, a couple of weeks ago he got the flu. He couldn’t seem to shake it, and today, after traveling to Chicago, he was pretty logy. I have certainly seen my dad sick before. But I’ve never seen him stay sick.

I am trying not to worry about this. I am trying not to think that all the years of not watching his blood sugar and not losing weight are catching up to him. This could be just a really pesky flu. But maybe it will at least scare him into making some changes.

OK, let’s get back to the Jitterbugging. There are few things in the world more important to my parents than their granddaughters. Aside from each other (they’re coming up on their 51st anniversary), I’m not sure there’s anything or anyone more important to them than their granddaughters – including me. (OK, maybe my brother. They always loved him best.)

So when the girls, excited by my nostalgia, and wanting to make a connection to their own passion, asked my parents to Jitterbug for them, Bernie and Barbara happily complied. With a caveat to the girls that they wouldn’t make it through the whole song, we found a version of “In the Mood” on YouTube, and the three of us watched them.

They were good.

And I am still in awe.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

No we're not. We're Jewish.

It was the first week of November, 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected president a couple of days before. And California’s gay marriage law had been annulled.

It was one of those rare times in my house when the TV wasn’t tuned to Disney or PBS Kids. We were watching the news, and a story about California came on. The girls were just about to turn six. I wasn’t sure how much they would understand, but I told them to be quiet and watch the TV.

When it was done I explained to them that gay people are not allowed to marry in most states in this country. I explained to them that California had decided to let gay people get married. And I explained to them that in this election, California had become the first state in our history to take away rights it had given to its citizens.

Then I said, “This is important because we’re a gay family.”

“No we’re not,” said Delaney, with utter certainty. “We’re Jewish.”

I had no answer.

For my daughters, at this point in their lives, being Jewish was a matter of identity. They had no notion of this force people call “God.” But they did celebrate Shabbat every Friday at their Jewish Community Center preschool. And they knew they were different, that most of the people in their kindergarten classes were not Jewish.

For them, also, being gay was a matter of identity. They have two moms. They do not have a dad. And there was only one other child out of 80+ kindergarteners who could say the same.

So, for them, being Jewish and being a gay family were sort of the same thing. We ARE. And we are.

And they’ve never hidden or been ashamed of either of those facts.

Fast forward to December 2011. They are now in third grade, halfway through their elementary school years. (And, yes, I’m very maudlin about that.) Somehow Dixon got into a conversation with two girls in her class about church.

“I don’t go to church,” she said. “I’m Jewish.”

The little girls’ reactions were apparently to look at her in shock and horror.

As Dixon related it to me later, they said to her, “You hate God.”

And, as she told me later, she just looked at them and thought, “You people are crazy.”

My first response was, “Welcome to the world of small-minded people.”

My second response was, “They were shocked that you were Jewish, but not that you have two moms?”

“They’re kinda new,” she said. “I don’t think they know that.” Then she flashed my grandfather’s mischievous grin. “But I might tell them tomorrow.”

This conversation threw me back to sixth grade in Las Vegas, when, at recess after show and tell, I was cornered on the playground by a little blonde Mormon girl named Shana and two of her equally blonde friends. For as long as I could remember, my mother had thrust a menorah in my hands every December for show and tell. I believe sixth grade may have been the last time.

“You killed Jesus,” Shana said to me, her face twisted up in triumph.

“I didn’t kill Jesus,” I said. “I didn’t even KNOW Jesus.”

I don’t remember the specifics of the rest of the conversation, but I do remember thinking exactly what Dixon thought oh so many years later: These people are crazy.

Some time ago I looked back on this and realized that growing up it didn’t matter what I was taught about Judaism. It didn’t matter whether we kept kosher or not. It didn’t matter how much I understood who Jesus was and why we didn’t believe he was the son of God.

What mattered was this: I knew I was different. And I was taught to be proud of that.

And that is partly why it’s easy for me to be gay. I don’t value and yearn to be part of the mainstream. I’m not chasing some idea of what I’m supposed to be. And I really don’t care what people think of me. There will always be little girls and big girls telling me I killed Jesus. And there will always be people telling me that my sexuality is an abomination.

These people are crazy. I’ve known that since I was 12.

Dixon is just about to turn 9. Last week, we were walking down the street, enjoying a holiday festival of shopping in Andersonville – a neighborhood of Chicago with a rather large lesbian population. Out of the blue, Dixon said, “Next Halloween, I’m going to be a menorah, because I’m proud to be Jewish, no matter what anybody says.”

Then she started singing Hava Nagila. Loudly. And she asked me to sing the words she didn’t know. The three of us were walking down a street full of holiday shoppers belting out an old Yiddish folk tune. I don’t know if either of the girls noticed some of the looks we got. If so, it didn’t make them stop.

They’re proud to be Jewish. They’re proud of their moms. They’re proud to be different. And they’re not going to let these crazy people tell them what to do.

And the conclusion I came to is that it really didn’t matter whether Delaney understood, three years ago, the distinction between being Jewish and being gay. What she understood is that we are who we are.

And we are.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Karen Krebsbach

Lately, I've been thinking about the people who influence our lives. The big ones, we can usually tick off. Mom and/or dad is on most lists. A teacher who got through to us in some fundamental way. A mentor who questioned something we took on faith, and made us rethink our view of the world. But lately, the people who have been in my mind are the people whose contributions were small, but had large ripples; people whose names I might not remember, who are just in my head as a snapshot or a voice.

There's the disheveled editor who seemed to be overwhelmingly disorganized, snapping my head back one day by refusing to file my story until I had added up and analyzed the numbers. He was right – looking at the numbers led me to realize there was something amiss, and I called back and asked more questions. In the theatre industry in Chicago – which I covered for 20 years – I am known for checking and rechecking the numbers, and often finding mistakes.

There are the two women who took me under their wing when I was working tech for a big show once. I started out working in lighting, and the board operator (who was in charge of the crew) tried to kiss me, then was verbally abusive for a sadly memorable week after I rebuffed him. These women, whom I can most accurately and lovingly describe as “broads” (of the kind that you have to have lived in Las Vegas to really know), got me transferred out of the light crew and onto the stage crew and then literally acted as a barrier to the asshole when he put up a fuss. I don't know their names. I was 20. They were in their 40s or 50s. If they are still alive, I'm sure they don't remember me. But the example they showed me of how strong women take care of each other has stayed with me. I would totally act as a barrier in a similar situation.

Then there's Karen Krebsbach. I remember her name partly because I thought it was cool, and partly because there's a Krebsbach family in Garrison Keillor's “Lake Wobegon.” And she was from the midwest; Wisconsin or Minnesota, I can't remember.

Karen was an editor at the first daily I worked at. I did obits, and tried to break into writing longer features. I tackled education funding in Massachusetts. I wrote about eminent domain, and how some homeowners were being screwed by the government in the service of a national park. Other editors there thought I was wasting my time. One even took a quote from a state senator out of one of my pieces on education funding. The senator posited, in a face to face interview, that the model should be changed from property taxes to sales taxes – a radical idea in the '80s, but an intuitive one in an area just west of Boston where property tax growth was fixed, but the high tech industry was just taking hold.

The editor told me the senator hadn't actually introduced legislation, so the quote shouldn't be in the piece.

But Karen... stayed with me. She was nice. She was smart. She hung around after hours to go over my longer pieces and help me shape them. Writing about larger issues is a bit like sculpting. Karen was a great sculptor, and she helped me see how to craft and sculpt, too.

After I left that job and got an internship at the Boston Globe sports department, I found to my surprise and delight that Karen was working in the Globe's business section. We didn't have coffee or anything. But we were happy to see each other, talked about what we were working on. She wasn't that much older than me, but she encouraged me to dream – to go after what I wanted. She was the first person who actively told me that I was a good writer. For her, it seemed a given. I didn't let on how much I appreciated the assumptiveness of her opinion. I didn't let on a lot in those days.

But in the years since, whether I realized it or not, I would hear Karen's voice as I was writing. It could have been something as simple as “be consistent with your references” or as complicated as “Who's voice are you telling this with?” Words and phrases and ideas would come through my head as if they were mine – which, of course, they were – and I'd always have this vague pull to the original discussion where I learned them.

We didn't spend much time together at all. But I remember Karen Krebsbach. And I appreciate the influence she had on my life.

So I thought I'd get in touch with her. Hell, you can find anybody these days, especially someone who works in a public medium like journalism. I wanted to thank her. I wanted her to know that she had left a mark in someone she only knew fleetingly.

So I Googled her. And this is what I found:

“Karen Krebsbach, Former Executive Editor at U.S. Banker, Dies at 52”

The headline is from American Banker, published on July 19, 2010. It was not the first source I saw, but it was the most comprehensive. She had moved on from when I knew her to live in New York and cover investment and international business. She managed a number of publications that won awards. She was widely recognized for an insightful column called “Inside Track.” She was successful.

That didn't surprise me.

She had breast cancer. For some reason, that floored me. She died way too young. She died before it even occurred to me to thank her. I sat at my computer and cried.

I wish I could end with some big admonishment about taking stock of the people in your life before it's too late. But we know that already, and we largely do – for the people who are actually IN our lives. But the people who influence us on the margins, who help shape us in very small but sometimes deeply profound ways – we don't really even know who they are. We just don't. I remember because I'm a writer. I'm a storyteller. Those kinds of memories and stories come more easily – anything could be fodder.

I'm glad I knew Karen Krebsbach. I'm glad she had an influence on my work. I'm sorry that it never occurred to me to thank her sooner. But, when I think about it, I realize I have been thanking her for 20+ years. I've been passing her advice along, and adding my own to it, helping people shape their own work. That's how we make the world a better place. She knew that. And she did.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Day Part 2 - Success

Yesterday I wrote about my pretty shitty day , and I’ve gotten a fair number of responses – which is kinda cool. This has been my answer: wait for part 2. Because while part 1 is about how overwhelming life can be raising kids alone on few resources, part 2 is the very secure knowledge that I can. That is to say, I am able to.

This is what I did after I wrote my piece yesterday: I helped my kids study for their spelling bee.

This may seem like a small thing, but it is an incredibly important building block. One of my daughters (yeah, the one who got her baby tooth capped yesterday) is – despite the fact that she’s very smart and very capable – very afraid of failure. She’s never failed. Therefore, she’s never really succeeded. She avoids competition, because she might lose. The spelling bee is a competition she is more likely to win, or at least do well in. It took me five days and a potentially expensive bribe to get her to agree.

But it’s worth it. Because the prize at the end of this is not winning a trophy or getting some refurbished electronic toy. The prize at the end of this is knowing that she can reach beyond her limits, and in doing so perhaps begin to discover something about herself she didn’t already know.

We talked a lot about that idea this past summer, as we watched “So You Think You Can Dance.” Yes, the dancers are marvelous. Yes, the choreography is (mostly) beautiful and intriguing. Yes, my daughters love dance. But what I kept pointing out was how much the dancers were changing as the competition wore on – how much they’d grown both as artists and as people. Each one of those dancers was continually asked to do something he or she didn’t think they could do. And then they did it anyway. And they did it well. You could see the confidence growing as if it were a material thing.

I’ve experienced that kind of growth. Yes, I, like my daughter, have passed things up because I didn’t think I was good enough or I didn’t want to fail – only to curse myself later. But I’ve also waded in – gotten up on that stage, sent in that story, came out, fell in love, had my heart torn apart. I started a business because I had to. I wrestled with the challenges as they came up. And I have succeeded way beyond what I had dreamed – even though I’m not rich by society’s definition.

I have learned tremendously through my failures and challenges. I am incredibly capable. I have that confidence. I want my daughters to have that confidence, too.

Now, being me, I can’t simply stop at my daughters. Every day, as I have to juggle more and more balls simply because of my marital and economic circumstances, I think of the people in the same sorts of situations who grew up without ever learning the exhilaration of succeeding beyond their dreams, who have never gained that confidence. I think of people who really have no dreams.

This is what kills me when I hear people saying that the poor are poor because they choose to be. That statement lacks realization that being poor means you have many more hoops to jump through – to arrange child care for your first AND second jobs; to get to the grocery store in between and schedule (if not cook) meals; to help your kids with life and homework; to keep the gas or electricity on. And to deal with the ever-present mortification, that whisper of “you’re worthless, you’re worthless,” every time you have to ask for help, or every time your lights get turned off because the electricity money went to repair your car so you could get to work - or every time you see your children give up. Being poor and single with kids is a constant challenge.

What happens to the people who never learned as kids or young adults to overcome challenges? What happens to the people who never gained that confidence? What do we do with a whole swath of the population that simply doesn’t know HOW to succeed, and who don’t have a hope of having a hope?

That’s a lot of what it means to be poor in this country. It’s not that people don’t choose to start a business, or get their PhD. It’s that those things are not even on their radar screens. Or if they are, the rest of their life is so overwhelming they simply can’t reach it.

Yes, we hear success stories – of some kid who grew up poor and ended up becoming a Supreme Court justice or an astronaut. But there’s an element in those stories that is always the same. There's always someone in the story who demanded more than societal expectations. There’s always somebody who taught them how to dream.

Despite those stories, there are people in this country who are so overwhelmed by what it takes just to get through one day that they have no hope of ever conquering it. They have no hope of making it better. They don’t know that they can.

So, every day I deal with those balls. And I look my daughters in the eye and I tell them they’re gonna enter the fuckin’ spelling bee whether they want to or not. And I go to work and I focus on making something wonderful. I focus on the future.

Because I can.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Day - 11-01-11

I am a single mother with a full-time, oddly demanding job.
My job only pays me $30,000 per year.
It is a 1-hour commute each way.

In 1990 I started a newspaper for the theatre industry.
— It was very successful.
— It ran for 20 years, though the last 10 have been hard and it has now all but closed.
— I am writing this on the internet.
— The last two sentences are related.

Today, I faced:

Getting my kids out the door for school.

Working from home in the morning because I had to...

Pick up one of my daughters and take her to the dentist because she had a cavity.

Watching as the dentist manhandled her, then charge me $520.
— Knowing that I couldn’t really get a better dentist because I don’t have dental insurance and only make $30,000 a year.
— Feeling ashamed.

While at the dentist holding my daughter down, missing a call from someone who wants to talk to me about taking over the business that is now all but closed.

Watching my daughter scream and cry from the pain and fear, because nobody explained to her what was going to happen, and they apparently didn’t numb her enough.

Feeling completely inadequate as a parent.

Knowing that “inadequate” is an inadequate word.

Coming home and being reminded that I have to take a university online ethics seminar, by tomorrow, for a part-time job that I have had since May, but have never actually worked.
— You work when they call you in.
— I’ve never been called in.
— But I have spent a fair amount of time doing administrative stuff for the university’s system.

Trying to sign up for the online ethics seminar, only to find that my ID and password don’t work.

Calling the university, getting the password and ID reset after a half an hour on the phone, then trying to log on again and finding it still didn’t work.

Getting an e-mail from the web developer for the business that is all but gone saying that he’s now able to do what he was supposed to do a year and a half ago, and knowing that the piece that’s hanging on will simply stop if I don’t do it.
— It will take an enormous amount of time and energy to get this done – by next week.
— If I don't get it done, my chances of passing the business on become almost nil.

Sitting with my daughter on the couch, making her soup and yogurt and applesauce and eating the same thing, even though I was starving, because I didn’t want to make her feel bad.

Working while sitting next to her and watching bad TV before going to pick up her sister from school.

Calling the state of Illinois’ Vital Check system to get copies of birth certificates for my daughters.
— I need the birth certificates because I need to sign them up for All Kids state insurance.
— This makes me feel more ashamed.

Being told by the Vital Check person that I needed to have the father’s name, and, after explaining to her that there was no father, but that there is another mother’s name on the birth certificate, having her ask me if I adopted my children and then having her tell me that the other mother has to ask for the birth certificates because “there can only be one mother.”

Holding my temper and just getting it done, while my daughter was pointing at the phone and making “cuckoo” signs.

Being asked by my daughter if she can use my computer.
— My computer was purchased in 2008 and is therefore old in computer years.
— My even older computer that the girls have can’t support the newer online game sites.
— I can’t afford a new computer.

Suddenly losing it, standing at the refrigerator, as my daughter looked on after she asked if she could use the computer.

Getting comforted by my 9-year-old. My 9-year-old whose mouth hurts.

Feeling completely inadequate as a parent.

Knowing again that “inadequate” is a horribly inadequate word.

Wanting nothing more than to just sit down in the middle of my incredibly messy house and not move anymore.

Writing this instead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tie Day

Monday was tie day. Kids had to wear ties to school. For some reason we have embarked on a month of silly clothes. The school will launch into this every once in a while, and it usually distresses me. I have enough trouble getting them to stop wearing shorts and skirts. Now I have to add another piece of clothing?

The girls told me on Friday that they had to wear a tie to school on Monday. I looked at them. I realize that some lesbians have ties in their wardrobes. I’m not one of them. And I quickly realized that this day was designated with the idea that kids and dads might have a nice time picking out the appropriate tie.


I knew when my kids were little that when a school or organization they belonged to had a daddy/daughter dinner, my kids would have to hang out at home with me. I was prepared for that. But a tie? One piece of clothing can put them completely outside of the game?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Watching Local News with a Too Aware 8-Year-Old

I stopped watching local news years ago. It was Jeffrey Dahmer that did it. This was in 1991. One story of the bodies found in his apartment was enough. But 20 minutes of a 25-minute newscast, for days at a time, with each story giving more gruesome details, was more than I could take. Sometimes the headlines are all we need.

When I've glimpsed local news since then – mostly when my parents are in town – I see it hasn't gotten much better. It's occurred to me that during the 20 years since I stopped watching local news, Illinois has had two governors convicted of crimes, the country has witnessed the dismantling of any safeguards on our financial system, we've seen scores of kids killed while standing on the street corner, our education system has lowered dramatically compared with the rest of the world (we are now ranked 18 out of 36 industrialized nations) and we've been plunged into a recession. I wonder how much better our country would be if the broadcast media had focused on any of these things before they became out of control and did damage. Instead, we got cursory looks at the stock market, against the backdrop of incessant reporting on Jeffrey Dahmer or Casey Anthony or Balloon Boy or OJ.

But I digress.

Recently, a friend of mine has been touting WGN news in the morning as fun and entertaining, while still reporting about important things. So, since I was wide awake at 5:30 this morning, I headed downstairs to get in a quick workout – and thought I'd see what the show was all about.

Problem is, I wasn't alone. Ever since her other mom (her Uma) moved to Florida last month, Dixon has been my shadow. I can't pee without her following me – even at 3am. This morning, just as I tried to sneak downstairs, her head popped up. So off we trudged together.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Consequences of Children

Delaney has been hard tonight. She threw a fit doing homework because I wouldn’t tell her the answers. She threw a fit during showers because she wanted to read after and I said to read while her sister was in the shower. Dixon just asked me if I would cuddle them for a little while after they got in bed. I said, “I don’t know. I need some time for myself.” And then I walked away. A few minutes later, I came back to see how Delaney was doing in the shower, and Dixon was sitting on her bed pensively. She simply looked up at me and said, “But mommy, that’s the consequences of having children. You have to love them and cuddle them and listen to them and do homework with them and spend time with them.”

I pretended I was mad at her. But really, I was appreciating the real consequences of having children.

Later, I was sitting in the kitchen and she came out and said, “See you think you spend too much time with us, and we think you don’t spend enough time with us. That’s the problem.”

I took her to her room and cuddled her. What choice did I have?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Women: Dead Mothers in Children’s Television and Film

Hannah Montana’s mother is dead.

Well, Hannah Montana is a fictional character who’s the alter ego of Miley Stewart, another fictional character played by Miley Cyrus, who’s a real person. Miley Cyrus’ mother is alive and well. Miley Stewart’s mother is dead. In the show, she would come back to her in dreams, played by Brooke Shields.

My daughters watched “Hannah Montana” until it went off the air last season. This means that I watched “Hannah Montana” until it went off the air last season. This is one of the sacrifices of motherhood. Believe me.

The show was about a very well-adjusted young woman who wants to keep herself well-adjusted by not being pulled into the trappings of fame. But she wants to be famous. So she creates an alter ego, who is fantastically famous, while she lives a “normal” life as a teenager.

In the show.

In real life, the character Hannah Montana also became fantastically famous. Unlike the show, in real life Miley Cyrus is fantastically famous, too.

There are a couple of things that always bothered me about the show. The first is that the ostensible premise is to look at the downside of fame, and the trade-offs that get made when one leaves the world of anonymity for the Hollywood star factory. But the show never explored that fascinating premise. Instead, it was a cookie cutter sit-com about being loyal to your friends, and following through, and not cheating, and being responsible—typical storylines for 7-12 year-olds (which, by the way, is younger than the demographic of the teenage characters).

Why set a show around such an interesting premise if you’re never going to use it?

The other issue I had with “Hannah Montana” is that at the start of the show, the 12-year-old Hannah had no mother – and didn’t seem to be bothered by that at all. The kid had no emotional or identity issues as she went through her teenage years – you know, the time when we often measure ourselves against and push away from our MOTHERS.

Name me a 12-year-old who has lost her mother who doesn’t think about her every day? Name me a well-adjusted teenager who, even as she insists her mother is ruining her life, really doesn’t go to her for help or advice, or to buy the prom dress or show her grades to?

This was a show about identity, and having a mother who dies when you’re a child certainly affects your view of who you are. Yet they completely ignored it.

At first I thought this was a good thing, an opportunity to teach my children about death, and impermanence, and living life to the fullest. At first I thought there was some depth to the choice. Then I started noticing that Miley Stewart is not the only motherless character in children’s television and film.

They’re everywhere. Or, should I say, nowhere at all.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riots and Fires and Looting, Oh My

The girls and I were in the car Tuesday morning listening to the BBC news about the riots in London. They talked to a shopkeeper, whose store was completely looted. He said, in an accent that I registered as not native London, that the last 10 years of his life had been wiped out. He said he called the police but they didn’t come. He was crying.

“Last night, when I was upstairs watching the news with you, they showed all those fires in London.”

It was Delaney, directly behind me, putting context to the anguish she had just heard.

“Yes,” I said, “there was rioting in London. People were angry and they were setting fires and destroying things, and stealing what they could get.”

At that moment, the BBC aired a 30-second or so interview with a bunch of teenagers who had been part of the riots. The interviewer asked them why they were doing this. There was no deep introspection in their answers. First they said it was the government’s fault; kids in the background could actually be heard yelling that it was the Conservatives who were in power who made them do it.  I wondered if they even knew what Conservatives were, or the policies they embodied. Then they said it was because of the way the police had treated them, and that it felt great to overpower the police. Then they blamed it on the rich people, the business people who have all the money and whose stores they looted.

“That’s not very responsible.”

It was Dixon, who apparently was listening as closely to this interview as I was.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sisters and the Traveling Condom

The girls and I watched “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2” last night. They had already seen part 1 at their other mom’s – where they have a tendency to watch things that are a little beyond my comfort zone. But part 1 seemed like a harmless movie, even though the girls made a point of telling me there was kissing in it. And part 2 was largely harmless, too

Until the condom broke.

To be fair, the scene between a couple of college freshman – who were played by and looked like and had the maturity of people in their late 20s – was pretty innocent. And actually well-acted by Amber Tamblyn – a name that I have heard in the ether, but have never connected to a face or a talent. And it really was mostly just kissing.

This is where I love watching things through my children’s eyes. The characters kissed. She hesitated, then nodded to him. He got excited and tore off his shirt. And they kissed some more. End of scene. It was all subtext. And my 8-year-olds were going, “Why is he so excited? What’s going on? Are they having sex?”


“Yes. She just said she’d have sex with him and I think it might be their first time.”

This is my philosophy – answer questions honestly as they come up. The girls know how women get pregnant. They know that most people have sex in order for the sperm to get into the woman and fertilize the egg. They know that’s not how they, themselves, were made. And they know that Finn from “Glee” wasn’t very smart in believing that sperm can travel in a hot tub and get a girl pregnant.

They know to be smart.

Which is why it pissed me off when the condom broke.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Gay Acting" and the Hypocrisy of Pointing It Out

So, is Marcus Bachmann gay? There’s a lot of speculation out there that the husband of presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann is as queer as a three dollar bill. And, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest it may be so.

But how can we tell?

Well, he has devoted his entire life and career to “curing” people from being gay. This gives me pause. We are often driven to do things in our lives because of who we are and what we experience. Someone whose sister died of cancer in childhood might find their life’s work focused on curing cancer. People who have perfect pitch often become musicians. And I know quite a few psychologists – not one of them would ever claim that they were completely sane.

So, Marcus Bachmann’s life work would suggest an inordinate fascination with gay people. On the surface, it looks like he doth protest too much.

Then there’s the way he walks and talks. Jon Stewart did an hysterical segment on July 13’s “The Daily Show,” pointing out that Dr. Bachmann “dances and sounds not only gay, but center square gay” – referring to the flamingly hilarious Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares.”

I totally agree. Marcus Bachmann does sound and look gay.

But wait a minute. Are we supposed to judge whether or not people are gay because of how they look and sound?

Kristen Chenoweth doesn’t seem to think so. A year ago, Chenoweth was one of the loudest voices in an outcry against Newsweek columnist Ramin Setoodeh, who posited that Sean Hayes was too gay to successfully pull off the macho lead in the musical “Promises, Promises” (in which Chenoweth co-starred with Hayes).

Said Setoodeh, who is himself gay: “Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm.”

Chenoweth called this “horrendously homophobic,” “small minded” and “bigoted, among other things. She was joined by “Glee” producer Ryan Murphy, and a host of gay and lesbian rights groups.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Don’t Stop Believing in a Hungry Heart

“Mom, what’s a hungry heart?”

Dixon asked me this a few days after Clarence Clemons died. We were in the kitchen, doing dishes and listening to an old interview with Clemons on the radio.

I looked at her, and marveled at how much more mature my children are at 8 than I was even at 18.

What’s a hungry heart?

I was introduced to rock n roll by my high school English teacher. Her premise, I believe, was to open up the world of poetry through the contemporary lyrics kids listened to every day on the radio. Her premise for our class—which I will admit was filled with a bunch of nerds—was to show us that John Donne was as much of a star in his time as Bruce Springsteen was in ours. Problem is, she first had to teach quite a few of us who Bruce Springsteen was. This was before Springsteen became a mainstream, top 40 idol, but after he had captured the hearts of true music lovers.

A couple of years later I was at Brandeis University near Boston, an eye opening experience for a girl from Las Vegas. Before we were all so connected, culture was as different from one side of America to the other as we were from England or Spain. Springsteen was a god to all of my Long Island and New Jersey classmates. I liked... Journey. And ELO. And the Little River Band. But I—green as green can be, with a slower pace and an unfamiliarity with such familiar East Coast things as fried dough—was seen as an oddity. Probably didn’t help that I was still unsure of my sexuality. And, despite the efforts of my high school teacher, I stuck to the music I liked.

This did not go over well.

One day in the cafeteria, a pinched-face kid named Keith implied sarcastically that there was something lacking in me because of my music preferences. I dumped my Coke on his head.

“Mom, what’s a hungry heart?”

“Well, everybody hungers for something,” I answered.

“You mean like love and power?” Dixon said.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Was I Born Gay?

Was I born gay? Did I come out of the womb hitting on my female nurse rather than the male doctor? Did I play sports as a child because I was genetically predisposed to later want to sleep with women, or because I was hyperactive and needed to constantly move? Do I have a deep voice because I’m gay? Or am I gay because I have a deep voice, and was therefore treated a certain way by the society around me?

These questions are almost impossible to answer. Perhaps that’s why most people—and certainly people representing gay leadership in this country—don’t even try. The prevailing argument is that we were born this way, and therefore we should have equal rights to every other human being.

I heartily agree that everyone is equal, no matter who they are. But here’s my answer to the question of whether I was born gay: I don’t care. And not only do I not care, I think the question is harmful. And I think a gay community that focuses on whether or not we were born this way is doing more long-term harm than short-term good.

Sexuality is an incredibly complicated thing. Who knows why we are attracted to the people we’re attracted to. It could be physical: strong arms, beautiful smile, small/big breasts. It could be a kind of look that comes out of someone’s eyes. It could be their attitude toward life, or their sense of humor. It could be that we sense that we have something to give that they need, and vice versa. We are attracted to people for a myriad of reasons, and we rarely question it. Until it jumps gender. Until the things that draw us and move us and speak to us are found mostly in people of the same sex. Then we crawl all over ourselves trying to find an answer to why we’re gay.

The question of whether we were born gay does not come from us. It’s a response to the prejudice surrounding us—to the prejudice we grew up with that still frames the way we see the world. It’s more directly a response to Christian nationalists, who have charged that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and, therefore, we can change. This argument is patently absurd. Whether we are gay because of a genetic variance, or whether we are gay because of a lifetime of moments and interactions with the world—or some combination thereof—is beside the point. We still can’t change, no matter how we are raised or how much psychotherapy we have. Who we are is largely immutable, whether it’s genetic or not.

What I can’t figure out is why our entire gay identity is wrapped around responding to the bullies in the playground who insist on defining us. They say, “You can change!” and our response should be, “Yeah, that’s completely ridiculous. What rock did you crawl out from under.” Instead, our response is, “No I can’t! I was born this way!”

We’re playing their game, on their field, responding to the rules and parameters that they’ve set up. Who are WE? And why aren’t we fighting the battle against ignorance on our terms?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Magic Hands (Or how little girls learn what "notorious" means)

My children have different hands.

Dixon’s are thin and delicate, with a firm grip, but not hard or clingy. They are surprisingly strong, and yet surprisingly relaxed and soft. Purposeful. And quiet. They know what they want.

Delaney’s are thicker and meaty, but with very long, tapered fingers. They are never easy and relaxed; they are always moving. When she’s in thought, they look like they’re flying. Tie her hands behind her back, and she won’t be able to speak.

All their lives, without even looking, I have known who has just put her hand in mine. They get a kick out of this. Every once in a while, they ask me to close my eyes, do a circle around me, and then stop and take my hands. Then they giggle when I tell them with unerring accuracy who’s on my left and who’s on my right.

Their personalities are a lot like their hands. Dixon looks so delicate and wistful, yet she can more than hold her own in wrestling matches against her twin sister, who has about 10 pounds and two inches on her. Delaney seems so large and bold, yet when they first started Trick or Treating, Delaney would lead Dixon up to about five feet from each door, then stop in fear, while her sister purposefully ran up to the door and rang the bell.

Before I go on, you have to know this: people notice my daughters. They are quite beautiful. They are also always bubbly and laughing. There is something inside them that radiates… something that attracts other people. I’m not kvelling, here. It’s somewhat perplexing to me, and a little disconcerting. Part of it is that there are two of them, but people gravitate to them. When we walk into stores or restaurants—even now as they are 8—people turn around and smile. Sometimes they even give them things. Still.

This came up one night at the end of 2007, a few weeks shy of their fifth birthday.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Speciousness of David Brooks

David Brooks is the king of speciousness. His arguments seem reasonable, but fall apart when you look closely at them.

Brooks is the kinda guy who makes assumptions that are erroneous, and then extrapolates on those assumptions. It all seems to make sense; and it does in a way. The extrapolations rise out of his assumptions logically. But the assumptions are wrong--or at least are debatable.

It's like saying, "Because the world is full of ugly people, we don't really need bright colors in our wardrobe. Drab green is a fine wardrobe choice." Most people then walk away thinking about the argument he's laid out: "Yes, drab is a fine wardrobe choice" or "No, color is great; it helps things look better."

But it's rare that his readers come away thinking, "The world is full of ugly people? I don't agree with that."

In his column yesterday, entitled, “Make Everybody Hurt,” he throws out that public sector unions "tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit," but gives no evidence to support that. That's not logical, that's emotional. It's appealing to the prevailing emotional belief that public employees are deadbeats.

We spend an enormous amount of time in this country talking about failing teachers, but very little talking about successful teachers--especially if those teachers are working within the current system rather than a charter school. By throwing out that sentence, Brooks appeals to our prejudice in this matter, not facts.

His speciousness also comes out in his call to make everybody share the burden "equitably." Sounds like a nice word, but what does he actually mean? One percent of the richest people in the country make more than the bottom 50 percent combined. Since 1980, the top marginal tax rate has gone from 74% to 35% - and lo and behold, budget deficits have skyrocketed. He's not saying, "We should all hurt PROPORTIONATELY." He's saying that we should ignore the tax breaks for the super wealthy and all "equally" give to solve the problem--which puts the proportional burden on the middle and lower classes.

He also doesn't point out that states are in the mess they're in largely due to the recession, which was caused by people having too much money they didn't know what to do with and investing in risky derivatives. For Brooks, the people who caused the recession don't have to pay more to clean it up. We all must share that burden equally. It sounds so kumbaya. But when you look closely at it, you realize that people who worked hard and did everything they were supposed to do are getting punished, while the people who screwed up are getting away scott free.

And it's this approaching debatable ideas as ipso facto correct that has insidiously moved us to the right in this country. "Because government should be small, then we need to cut. But what to cut is the issue..." And we all walk away thinking, "Yeah, what to cut is the issue." But we don't necessarily walk away thinking, "Government shouldn't be small. It should simply work better." He doesn't give us that option.

That's not bad writing. It's a good, tightly controlled argument that leads people where he wants to lead them--and obfuscates what he doesn't want people to think about.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Game of Life

From Thanksgiving 2008

We’re at my Aunt Rose’s for Thanksgiving weekend. It’s Saturday morning and we’re hanging out before we hit the road this afternoon. Aunt Rose has lots of board games for her grandchildren. Delaney decides she wants to play the Game of Life. Great. We open it up and set out all the mountains and valleys and schools and churches. I read the instructions (believe it or not, I’ve never played the game before) and we pick out our cars. I read that we have to put representative people in our cars, so we open the bag and, to my amusement, there are only pink and blue “people” pegs. We each take a pink.