Saturday, February 28, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mom Prom

At my son's high school, which is all boys, there is a long-standing tradition of the mother-son dance in February of the boys' senior year. It's supposed to be a break in regularly scheduled programming, after all the anxiety-inducing college apps are sent and gone, after all the hormone-soaked years of adolescent angst crashing into menopausal emotionalism are just about done. I remember the principal of the school, whom the boys affectionately refer to as "The Ultimate G," telling a group of mothers before my son ever went there, that the school was very conscious of trying to balance all the roiling testosterone of an all-boys environment with feminine influences. Mom Prom was no doubt born of that effort.

We had to send in baby pictures of our boys in advance of last night, and sure enough, those pictures were on display, each one set next to the senior portrait of that boy, on a continuous loop all night. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When the letter came from the school inviting us to the mother-son dance, I read and folded it back into its envelope, saying to my husband, "He won't want to do this. He'll think it's silly." My husband shrugged, and I put the letter away.

A couple of evenings later, my son said to me, "Did you get the letter about the mother-son dance?"

I looked surprised. "Yes."

"Well, do you want to go?"

"You want to do that?"

"Of course. I spoke to some seniors from last year and they said it's mad fun. Most of my friends are going with their mothers."

(My son retells this story often, especially the part where he mimics the joy spreading across my face as I absorb the fact that he actually doesn't mind being seen in public with me.)

So last night, my husband dropped me off at the school at seven, and there was my son out front, lounging with his friends, all of them dapper and handsome in jacket and tie. He loped right over to me once he caught sight of me, and said in a voice to warm a mother's heart (in that it was a sincerely happy-to-see-you greeting), "There you are! Right on time." At which point he held out his arm for me to take, and we walked inside.

We had to sign in. Another mom pinned a red corsage on me. We stopped in front of a photo screen and posed for a mother-son shot ("Move closer to your son, incline your head to your mom"), then went inside to find a table. One of my son's friends tagged along with us, worrying about when his mom would arrive. He hadn't been able to reach her by cell phone. "Don't worry, man, my mom can handle both of us till your mom shows up," my son joked. "She'll be here soon," his friend said nervously, and I was touched by how much it mattered that she be there. We think we have ceased to be important to our teenagers, especially when they're 17 and heading off on their own soon, but everything about last evening showed us that in fact, they love us dearly, and thanks to a not-at-all corny school tradition, they could pause for a moment to show us that.

How to explain what made the evening so special? The sight of all these young men, so confident in themselves, so supported by a comfortable, goofy and kinetic sort of male camaraderie, all escorting their mothers with no sheepishness or embarrassment. And there were the mothers of every shape and color and size and age and style of dress, in awe of the young men we had raised, seeing, finally, another view of them, how they handle themselves out in the world, so moved by their charm and grace and warmth and willingness to take time out to honor us. My son and I cut up on the dance floor, joined trains, boogied down. We laughed a lot. We talked with no defensiveness. We joked with his friends. Shared stories with other mothers, all beaming with pride at the fine young men our boys had become.

Then, sometime around ten, the deejay called all mothers and sons to the floor and told the boys to turn to their mothers and say whatever it was they wanted to say. In the crush of mothers and sons, my boy put his hands on my shoulders and said, "Mom, thanks for bringing my big head into this world. I may not always be easy and I may not always show it, but I love you, and I really appreciate everything you've tried to teach me and everything you do. And this is for you." He reached into his pocket and handed me a small white box. Inside was a gold chain on which hung a pendant replica of his senior class ring with ruby stone. The school had given each of the boys this gift to present to their mothers! It was quite a moment. Around us, mothers had tears rolling down their faces. Our sons laughed, again, not out of embarrassment, but indulgent and familiar knowledge of the women who had raised them, and clasped the necklaces around our necks. Then the deejay played Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and we did a two-step with our boys, so gratified that we had made it to this generous place.

We left soon after that. My husband was waiting in the car outside to drive us home. He watched us walk through the night towards him, his wife and son arm in arm, laughing and joking and talking. As we got closer, our son called out, "Dad, you gotta step up your game. Mom had a ball! You should have seen her on the dance floor!"

Later, my husband and I lay in bed with me rehashing the evening in minute detail. Out in the living room, my son was back to his silly self, teasing and joking with his sister, cracking up at That 70's Show, falling asleep as usual in front of the TV.

It was a perfect evening.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Barack's Safe Place

At a campaign rally in Pueblo, Colorado, on November 1, 2008, the man who would be president greets his wife. Everytime I look at this, I am undone by the emotion and sense of homecoming in his face. Clearly, Michelle is Barack's safe place. (Photo by Zyrcster/Flickr)

Seeking Clarity

Said to me by my executive editor this morning: "No one under the age of 52 should be thinking about retiring from this company, because that's just not the way things work anymore..."

It was a single sentence in a string of sentences that added up to paragraphs, but this passing observation stood out for me as if it had blinking lights and clanging bells around it. Yes, I am under 52. There are so many ways to parse this...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

At Home in the World

My son, one year ago, played a rousing pick-up game of soccer in a public square in Coimbre, Portugal with some local kids. It was one of the peak moments of his life, he said when he came home. In a few weeks, he's off on another trip with his schoolmates, including some of his soccer and track and field teammates, this time to England and France. I love that his life can include such experiences. When I was my children's ages, my parents took my brother and me to these places. My husband and I haven't managed to do these sorts of world excursions with our kids. Instead we've spent our vacations going home to Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia so our son and daughter would be close to their grandparents and cousins and feel connected to their West Indian roots. I think it was the right decision for our family, but I'm also glad our kids have opportunities that can make the rest of the world available to them, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

One of my coworkers stopped by my desk this morning, his brow creased. "Do you think," he said as he plopped himself in the chair opposite me, "that they're artificially suppressing Wall Street and the financial markets so Obama won't succeed?"

Ahh, I thought, the mysterious, ubiquitous they. Always a promising train to jump aboard. "I mean," my friend continued, his tone urgent, "could there be a cartel of politicians and businessmen out there who have rigged this game so he'll look like he failed?"

After the last eight years, I'd have to say game rigging is definitely a possibility. I do know this: The Republicans have closed ranks around a commitment to oppose everything our new president proposes. They will whine and complain and pitch fits on every news program that will book them, about the pork in the stimulus bill and welfare spending and so-called socialism, and they will offer up not one serviceable idea in return, and they will ignore that Obama is trying to do something for people who are hurting, doing the best he can, with more heart and smarts than the last guy who sat in his chair, but no, they, in fear of their political lives, would rather take down the country, take down even their own, all so that President Barack Obama won't appear to be the hero riding into town.

You can't shake hands if only one hand is extended. You can't be bipartisan all by yourself. But I'm not worried about Obama. He knows how to play the game. And as my mother likes to say, God isn't sleeping.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Falling Child

At The Dalton School, a storied private school on the Upper East Side, an eleventh grader fell to his death at 11:15 a.m. today. Reports say he opened a window in the unoccupied dance studio on the 11th floor of the school and jumped. Children were playing on the sidewalk when he fell. They scattered, screaming, mercifully unhurt. His mother, who lives a few blocks away, ran to the scene and broke down. I cannot even imagine what this must have been like for her. To even try to picture it lacerates the heart.

Apparently, he was a kid who won awards, a mathematician, a football player, track and field athlete, and website whiz. His name isn't on the news yet, but all over Facebook, hauntingly like the last time this happened, those who knew him or knew of him are bidding him "R.I.P." And they call him by name.

My God, how tragic that youngsters, 17 tender years old, can be so convinced that life will never get any better than the dark moment they are living through. What psychic demons must have taken hold? This also kicks up echoes for the students at my daughter's school, who lived through their own sorrow a short month ago.

I understand that on the street outside of Dalton, where he fell, candles and flowers and tributes are a spreading testament to the fact that this boy's life was so much more prized than he, in his last moments, knew.

Rest in peace, Teddy Graubard.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obama Girls

The President, while he was still a candidate, reflected that his daughters' presence in the White House would redefine the way the world looks at little Black children, and who they can be. Notice how deeply Malia's dad is listening to what she's saying. Observe Sasha's comfort and glee as she runs through the corridors of power. Note the sweet Black girl hairstyles and the soft flyaway fuzz that Black girls everywhere remember from their own childhood days of travel or play. It makes me ridiculously happy that the two most privileged children on the planet are now these two little girls, the lovely, unspoiled, brilliant and protected Malia and Sasha Obama.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Painting Her Room. Finally

My daughter has wanted her room painted for years. She chose the colors. She begged. She pleaded. She was tired of the all-white walls that to her mother, when we moved in to this apartment 9 years ago, looked so airy and loft-like. Especially set against maple wood floors. Except, in the bedrooms, the floors aren't wood. They're beige berber carpets that have seen better days. So my girl, arriving at adolescence, looked around at this sea of pale and decided she had to have some color in her life. Purple, she decided. But time passed she grew out of her purple phase. Apple green walls with pink accents, she then decided.

We went to the paint store and bought little samples of pink and green paint. We painted squares on one wall and wrote the names of the colors next to the squares in pencil. My daughter began to hope. We observed the colors in all phases of light and dark, then chose one, Acadian Green, and went back to the store for the gallon can. My daughter looked around her room, analyzed how difficult each piece of furniture would be to move, and decided that maybe we'd just paint two of the walls green (accent walls, she explained) and leave the wall with laden bookshelves contrasting white. The opposite wall with the large window would also be white, but we'd add a punch of color with some curtains. Now we had a plan.

We went to Linens and Things and bought the pink accents: a pink and green comforter, complementary polka dot and striped multi-colored cushions, a big pink bolster. We bought a new bed with pretty scrolly white ironwork on three sides. We dressed it with the new pink-accented bedding. And the white scrolly ironwork just sat there, lost against the white walls. My daughter invited her friends, her cousins, everyone who stopped by, to write messages on the wall behind her bed. Graffiti in the form of large hearts, bubble letters, pencil hieroglyphs, mazes, and love notes flourished on the walls. My daughter and her friends showed no restraint. After all, the walls would soon be painted over.

Still, the can of green pain sat on top the the buckets of Decorator White eggshell paint that we'd dug out from the depths of our hall closet. The containers of paint sat for months, inexplicably in my son's room. They became beside tables of sorts for him, a repository for all the college catalogs and postcards and brochures that arrived in the mail. My son applied for colleges and now the acceptances began to pile up on top of the paint cans. Finally, my daughter figured out what she needed to do. Mom was fine with the retail efforts, she realized, but to actually get the room painted, she would have to enlist...Dad!!!

And so, this long President's Day weekend, she and her dad are finally painting her room. And I am trying to stay out of there because I have endless suggestions for how they can do it more efficiently, and how not to track paint onto the carpet (in only one spot so far), and how to prep for neat edges and how much to complete before taking a break. I realize now that I couldn't quite paint the room with my daughter because the process kicked up all my worst OCD traits. The chaos in there right now gives me the shivers. But my daughter and my husband are doing it their way, cheerfully painting each wall and willy-nilly shoving obstacles out the way. I have no doubt that by the end of the day, the transformation will be complete. Then it will be my turn again. Wresting order out of chaos. Shopping for the pretty accents.

As I've often said, my children hit the dad lottery. Today, my husband has made our girl very happy.

Writing on the Wall

"And the words of the prophets are written on [a teen girl's] walls" (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, whose songs I would listen to on repeat when I was a teen girl myself).

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Scene: Son is sprawled on the living room couch watching Tropic Thunder on DVD. I am in the kitchen, packing the dishwasher. Husband and daughter are in daughter's bedroom at the end of the hall, moving furniture and miscellaneous items to the center of the floor in preparation for painting the walls the next day.

Me (calling down the hallway with some urgency): You have to get some of that blue paint tape from the hardware store so you can get a neat edge where the different paint colors meet!

Silence from the back bedroom. But at that precise moment the smarmy Tom Cruise character on Tropic Thunder blares from the TV: "Shut the fuck up and let me do my job!"

Me (to myself): Guess that's my answer.

Son falls off couch and rolls on the floor, laughing. Then takes off down the hallway to announce my comeuppance.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tender Mercies

This photograph always makes me stop and want to fall into it, my child at age three and her grandfather, the sense of joy and imminent adventure on my daughter's face, the calm comfort and protectiveness in my father-in-law's posture. Even the bindi on my child's forehead says something to me about her sense of play. But it is the expression in their eyes that always stops me. Her absolute unguarded innocence. His gentle acceptance of the world as it is. Her small hand encased in his, she looks out on the world with the simple expectation that it is good. My girl is 14 now, and she knows that the truth is more complicated. Even so, she still chooses to see the best in us. I pray that the world will reward her mercy.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shining Armour

You know, I bet my son's guidance counselor found a way to work into his college recommendation that he is the grandson of a knight. Not many Black boys in America can claim grandpa was knighted by the queen herself, that for his grandpa's good works, her royal highness laid a sword on his shoulder in a great room at Buckingham Palace and dubbed him "Sir." My son is so like his grandpa was. They have the same core decency, both pranksters with a lively sense of humor, with the same sensible, methodical approach to problem-solving, and an unequivocal personal code of ethics. My son was just four when my dad died, but in those four short years they laughed and played and were so wonderfully silly together. Then, when my dad was ill and bedridden at the end, his legs paralyzed, the cancer marching through his body, my son would pour oil onto his little hands and massage my dad's feet. They were such comrades.

I can imagine my dad, pulling strings from heaven, his eyes merry.

Monday, February 2, 2009

How He's Grown

My son at 6 months, snapped while taking a break from trying to chew on the edge of the coffee table. Can you believe this baby is now 17 and off to college in the fall? Time flies when you're having fun!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

He's In!

My son got four more college acceptances this week, no rejections so far. Two were from his tied-for-first choice schools, one of which has the top fire protection engineering program in the country, a major he was so interested in, until he started to think that he wouldn't get in. The school has become very competitive in the last decade, so we worried it might be a reach school for him, given his unspectacular SATs. But they saw him. They saw past the SATs to his solid B+ average, and extracurriculars that show he is totally engaged with his world. Then, too, he's witty and charming and sociable, a cut-up and a loyal friend, all that to say, I think his teachers may have written him warm references. Plus, it doesn't hurt that he's a Black boy holding his own at a great school. Way too few of those applying to colleges right now.

He found out about this latest acceptance last night. He got awake around three a.m. and went for water in the kitchen. Then he decided to check his email before going back to bed. And there it was. A notice of his acceptance, sent at 4:17 p.m. the afternoon before. (Coincidentally, it arrived just as he was stepping up his game at a track meet, smashing his time in 55m hurdles, setting a new personal record of 7.9 seconds, finally breaking through the 8.1 time that had dogged him all year.)

He woke his dad and me and held his cell phone to our faces. As the words ("Congratulations, you have been admitted...") swam into focus, I grabbed his neck and hugged him, my excitement matching his own. But this morning, I didn't know if I had dreamed it.

Barely awake, I asked my husband, "Did it really happen?"

"Yes," he confirmed happily. "He's in."