Shattering Ceilings

    Among the many areas for which I feel somewhat ill-qualified in guiding my students is when I attempt to push them into a business world which I’ve successfully shunned for most of my life. It isn’t that I don’t understand where they’re going. I get corporate America. I understand resumes and interviews. I know the rules of the game.

    It’s just that from my vantage point, the game often is not worth playing.

   broken glass ceiling And young women can be at a particular disadvantage. Even when they’re heading into PR and communications (no shock that my students would be of that ilk), fields well full of the fairer sex, they seem to face some pretty daunting hurdles. The most formidable barriers of which may be the gatekeepers themselves: other women.

    Last semester, when one of my students found herself in a back-and-forth volley of snippy emails with a would-be internship employer, I offered what I considered a commonsense approach. Apologize for missing the meeting and move on. In her defense, the girl was trying to fit an above-and-beyond internship into a full-course curriculum and a 25 mile commute. Car problems and finals week pushed her just over the edge. The woman answering her email mea culpa couldn’t be bothered.

    Was I missing something here? I must have been.

    So I asked a friend who has steadily climbed the business world ladder for the last 20+ years. She got it immediately. She painted a few scenarios. One –the woman had brought the girl onboard and the student’s missed meeting was already reflecting badly upon the woman. Two –she was threatened by a younger, perhaps better polished version of herself. And three, she was just a bitch.

    At the last of her offered explanations, I balked.

    I could hear the shoulder shrug through the telephone line. Regardless of any offense I might take at the stereotypical notion of what defines a successful businesswoman, she seemed to be saying -it was what it was. She implied that Meryl Streep had captured more than good comedy in The Devil Wears Prada; Meryl’s Miranda Priestly was, in fact, pretty representative of women-and-younger-women workforce relationships.

    My apparently naïve vision of an upturned hand offering guidance was slapped away pretty quickly in the world my friend sketched.

    “Girls suck,” she said.

    God, I hate that word. (okay, I get the hypocrisy –let’s not go there)

    And also I don’t believe it.

    Because if I did, I’d have to revisit every lesson I’ve passed along to my kids. I’d have to rethink my personal history. And I’d have to ignore some pretty powerful women in my own life, starting with my mom, my grandmothers and my aunts but enveloping also my cousins, my sister-in-law, my friends and my own supervisor at work.

    It isn’t that I haven’t seen the women to whom my friend refers. I know they’re out there. It’s just that what gets forgotten in all that condemnation and cut-throat imagery are the other women in our lives.

    So because I believe we are bountiful, here’s to the girls who’ve lent a hand, a shoulder, an ear.  The girls who’ve held ponytails after too much partying, wiped tears away after breakups, calmed one trembling hand with another. The girls who’ve offered high fives and fist bumps, but also honest assessments of our outfits, our weight, our boyfriends.

    I believe in all of us because I know that at the close of that horrible news telephone call, the one that usually follows is placed to another woman. And that the in-sickness-and-in-health vow may extend more befittingly to the woman who is bringing food and taxiing children, or sizing her friend for a wig before shuttling her to chemo. I know that at the end of a man’s betrayal, there is a woman pulling her friend from the wreckage of a broken marriage. And that at the depths of her self-esteem, it isn’t a man, but rather a woman telling her that she’s beautiful and worthy and loved. And when the kids are making her crazy, it’s another woman showing up at the doorstep with a bottle of wine and a contributing curse.

    Sure, it’s about venting and raging, but it’s also about crying and consoling. Sometimes its words, like “I’m sorry,” or “I get it,” and sometimes it’s complete silence, a hand on a knee, a hug. It’s reassurance and affirmation and pride. It’s simple understanding, or utter irreverence. It’s being there –good times and bad- in a way that supplants geographic location; it’s the kind of touch that transcends physical contact.

    Perhaps because I’ve been tested with bad times, I doubly believe in the good.  I’ve cried crippling tears of loss, but more often streaming tears of laughter. And sharing them both with me is always a woman.

    So if my young friend will trust it, I’ll continue to pass along my naiveté. Because for every woman shattering glass ceilings with disregard for raining debris and collateral damage, I’d like to believe there are at least as many pulling the littered shards from hair and clothes and leading with helping hands. My vision ignores the nasty emails and focuses instead on the one my student received which sincerely thanked her for joining the team, assured her that she’d always have a home in their workplace and signed it with Xs and Os. The email’s author is the type of woman I wish to be in her life –a woman who isn’t threatened or spiteful, but rather a guide up the ladder of a success that isn’t measured solely by titles and paychecks. And one who willingly passes along the feminist torch with a light that doesn’t burn, but rather bolsters and warms, instead.

Bubbles

In retrospect, I probably should have seen the fact that my son had met each of his principals as a pretty powerful hint of foreshadowing. Especially when you consider his first one-on-one was in the first grade. And no, it wasn’t in the we’d-like-to-hand-you-yet-another-award sort of meeting. Michael’s lonely corridor trek was that other kind of to face-to-face encounter with the big guy. Or woman, in the case of his sit down with Ms. Richardson in elementary school.

bubbles

At his second grammar school, it was Mr. Kaplon and Michael accurately tied his conviction to his lack of an escape plan. Well, actually he had a plan; he just wasn’t able to execute it very well. All of the other snowball throwers hightailed it the heck out of there before the principal’s arrival on scene. Speed in athleticism has always been a particular handicap for Michael. Add that to that fact that his accomplices were members of the football team and it was easy to see why he alone wasn’t able to evade capture.

So I couldn’t exactly express shock when I learned of his most recent infraction.

But of course it was my fault.

Let me back that up a bit. In some convoluted kid logic, both my children lay fault for many of their misdeeds on me. In part it is to abdicate responsibility. But in their defense, they follow a logical line of thinking. Since it was my choice to have children in the first place, the root of anything negatively attached to them is always traced back to me. Never mind, that it was dad who really pushed that whole let’s-have-kids notion long before I was ready. Never mind, that at some point, I might enjoy abdicating a little responsibility of my own. But in the recent bubbles episode, I actually do have to accept much of the blame.

Then again, maybe it’s not really my fault.

Gee, I wonder where my kids get it from?

I’ll call it my Twinkie defense.

Twinkies, Twitter, whatever. There are just certain sweet treats better left out of the hands of newbies. In my case, it was Facebook.

Twenty-first century plunger that I am, I had enough knowledge to open a Facebook account back when it was relatively new. Not really my idea, btw (yes, I even know the acronyms. I am so whatever that most recent word for “cool” is). But I was urged to open the account as a means to promote my novel. (Insert shameless plug for http://www.lindaemma.com and Prime Meridian). So, I opened it. Did absolutely nothing further in the way of self-promotion, but me and my 22 friends were contentedly ignoring one another on our ever-so-with-it Facebook accounts.

Until.

Did you know that Facebook is a really good stalking tool? Sorry, my daughter tells me it’s “creepin,” not stalking.

But don’t worry, I’m not interested in you or your kids. I’m not even that interested in my little girl –she said yes to my friend request and lays it all bare for me and whomever else might be creepin on her. Her brother, on the other hand thought that the idea of friending his mother was just a little too weird for him.

Okay, so I can’t blame him. Would I have wanted my own exploits viewed by my mother? God, no! I’m WAY over 21 and I still haven’t told her about the incident with the beer in the boot hamper.

I digress.

Back to FB -As I tell my kids and my students all the time, nothing you put out there in cyberspace is private. Ever.

He was forewarned, so if he chose to share his life online, anyone gets to peek. Even mom.

Back to why I take some of the blame in the great bubble caper. I was creepin on my son’s Facebook when I noted the upcoming Bubbles holiday.

Okay, so maybe I should have realized that Bubbles Wednesday wasn’t a nationally recognized and government-sanctioned holiday. But what the heck –I thought that twin day in middle school was a pretty lame idea. And Dr Seus’s birthday rivaled Martin Luther King’s in elementary school. What did I know?

Anyway, Michael and I had just come out the other side of a rough patch (see blog title) and I was trying to show him that mom wasn’t really always on his case.

Off-handedly noting the impending holiday, I asked if he had his bubbles.

Expressing even mild shock that I was aware of Bubbles Wednesday would have implied he cared about what I thought and how I might have discovered the holiday. Clearly, his mumbled monosyllable and shoulder shrug was him acting in-character. At some point during that morning grunted conversation, however, he admitted that he might be ill-prepared. His bubble supply lamely consisted of the last of the tiny party favors given out at his cousin’s high school graduation. How insufficient.

Can I just say that before I stocked him up with ammunition, I did tell him to use it for good and not evil? I warned that there could be bubbles repercussions if he misfired or misused. This falls under the “I told you so” defense. Is there even such a thing?

On his way out the door, there was an actual sentence. We write these down now (kind of like we wrote down other illustrious events from his childhood like first smile and rollover). He said something like –“C’mon mom, how would you seriously handle that phone conversation if your son got caught blowing bubbles?”

Talk about foreshadowing.

Fifteen and he’s a friggin prophet.

I got the phone call.

The vice principal didn’t see the humor in the event. In fact, he took it pretty seriously. I think he used the word “insubordination.”

Seriously?

For bubbles?

I played parent and agreed that Michael should be punished.

However, when Michael painted the picture of his exile to the “bad” lunchroom table, I couldn’t help but picture a B movie scenrio in which one convict asks another at the mess room table, “so what are ya in for?”

“Flippin off a teacher.”

“Skipping school.”

“Weed.”

Michael’s reply?

“Blowing bubbles in math class.”

The Most Honest Person I Know

                                                  


           Alex was still a toddler when it dawned on me that her version of honesty and mine might be divergent concepts. At first I deemed it storytelling. But it soon became clear that I was being too euphemistic.


 


            She was lying.


 


            Sometime at the start of her childhood I had informed my daughter I could always tell if she was lying by looking into her eyes. A claim, by the way, I would not recommend making. It may have given the tiny toddler pause, but it also set her on a path to perfect the art. And lying is an art.

           
But in the early days, she was not its artist.

           
We were on our way to a daytime adventure when I asked her if she’d brushed her teeth; she said yes.


 


           But her toothbrush, set on my vanity, was still dry, the toothpaste unmoved.

           
I asked again. Yes, she said.

          
You’d lie about brushing your teeth? I just don’t get it.

          
Patience, I told myself.

           
So I bent to her three-year-old stature, gazed into earnest brown eyes and asked her one more time:


 


          “Did you brush your teeth?”


 



           She insisted she had.  But this time with eyelids tightly shut.

          
Of course.

          
Mommy clearly couldn’t tell if Alexandra was lying if she couldn’t see into her eyes.

          
Stifling a chuckle I put my hands on her tiny shoulders, turned her about face and marched her into the bathroom to brush.


 


            In first grade, it was the parent’s conference at which I was surprised to see her teacher’s cuts had healed so well. Toward the end of the meeting when I inquired about Ms. Holbrook’s injury, the perplexed expression spoke volumes. What exactly had Alexandra told me?  With dawning comprehension she asked, “then you probably don’t really own a pet monkey, do you?”


 


            Of all the character flaws, how was it that my daughter settled upon the one for which mom was least tolerant? If the foundation of our very relationship couldn’t be built upon trust, then where exactly were we headed?


 


            In sync with my contemporaries, when faced with such a parenting road block, I turned to the experts. The pediatrician, the self-help books, the online networking. This was a dilemma for which some shrewd sage could offer a simple solution.


           


            Or so I told myself.
    
            Instead, the conflicting remedies left me with more puzzle than solution. The notion that the tendency in children to lie wasn’t a big deal, was in fact pretty typical, was ludicrous to me.  If I couldn’t get beyond this general consensus of the experts, how was I to take their counsel? They wanted me to accept, ignore and reward; I wanted to admonish, scream and punish. 

           
Neither of our techniques worked.


 



            She wasn’t merely told that accepting rides from middle school wasn’t allowed, she was told specifically from whom she could not take a ride. When the bus came home one day and she didn’t, I got into the car. I had driven as far as the next street when I saw her rounding the corner, on foot.  

           
Why had she been so late?


 


            Without missing a beat, she asked, “do you want me to tell you the truth?” 


 


            Against the rules, she had taken the ride and gotten dropped off at the top of the street. It was a truth of sorts, but only forthcoming because she had been caught practically red-handed.

   
        On the flip side of all her deceptions, however, was an inclination to include me where her peers put up parent barriers.  At times there seemed to be no dam between her brain and her mouth. Filterless comments flung freely. I knew secrets, antics and anecdotes that silently I wondered why she shared. I knew when she did something funny, something stupid, something wrong. I was privy to girlhood dramas and school yard gossip. I knew which kids were doing what and at what ages.


 


            As I became repository to countless confessions, I was also allowed access to the no holds barred persona that was reemerging on the other side of adolescence. In acquiescence to her Mean Girl encounters, Alex had tempered her exuberant personality to better fit her classroom community. The physical, boisterous and bold tomboy had retreated to a quiet and intimidated little girl.


 


            So it was with mixed emotion that I received her assertions in high school that she “didn’t care what people thought of her.” I was delighted in the returned confidence and independence; I cringed at the indifference and defiance. For her missteps she offered tepid apologies. On one occasion, when I dissected her betrayal of a friend’s confidence, she concluded that maybe she had been wrong but quickly appended the admission with the statement that her friends should know better: she simply could not keep a secret.


 


            After each incident, I found my self marveling at my daughter’s forthrightness.  What spilled out of her mouth wasn’t just a snapshot of teenage life; it was a feature length full screen with a borderline R rating.  And I understood that what she shared with me she was sharing with abandon. What she was telling me, she was telling to almost anyone who would listen.


           


            In contrast, what I reveal isn’t deceptive so much as it is incomplete.  Set in a self-edit mode, it isn’t merely the written word I choose carefully; I often consider consequence even in everyday conversation. What spins in my head rarely makes it out beyond my own imagined play of it. 

           
And it is from this tainted lens that I have warned Alex of the perils of her honest outlook. It’s one thing to derisively ask mom if I really plan on wearing that outfit; it’s another to offer her friends the same unfiltered criticism. However, all my attempts over the years to instill in her even a bit of wariness have been futile. I’ve watched with apprehension and incredulity as she has faced life’s challenges with porous armor. To the people in her path, she reveals full self, warts and all, every time. Even when her honesty gets her in trouble, she quickly utters an unconvincing “oh well, I’m over it” long before she really is and moves on. She jumps head long and full throttle into every relationship and retreats not battle scarred and skeptical at its conclusion but open and unguarded, ready for the next.


 


           It is at these times that I wonder just who is teaching whom. And exactly what being honest truly means.

Deer in the Headlights

            It is just too apt a metaphor not to include in the blog.

 
            The other night –


            Okay, I say night, but if you’re from these parts (New England) you know that a summer night can still yield bright sunshine.

 

Seriously bright sunshine.


            That’s why the deer which darted out in front of me –alone-was an actual anomaly.


             No, deer aren’t unusual. In fact, with the plethora of McMansions sprouting around here like daylilies on roadsides and evicting the creatures from their natural habitat, deer are downright plentiful. However, they seem to fill the fields in accordance to some patterned path of behavior. I like to believe that those black and yellow deer postings are akin to our crosswalk signs and that the deer actually do agree to cross the roads within those human-set boundaries. They seem also to follow the safety-in-numbers motto; they travel in groups. They like early mornings, late dusky days and ridiculously late evenings. If you drive the back roads of our suburban neighborhoods at night you understand that you’re more likely to hit a deer than another car. In fact, you’re more likely to see a deer before you encounter another human. It’s the nature of the environment.


            But there he was, forcing me to slam brakes, utter curses, and wonder where the heck his mother was.


            Oh, it was most definitely a boy.

 
            And somewhere behind him was a worried doe.


            He was darting from the fold and into the surely-forbidden roadway in the heat of some testosterone-induced fit of fury, no doubt.


            Why did the deer cross the road?


            Likely, a girl on the other side.

 
            Or judging from my own experience with teenage bucks of the human variety, it might have been some young stag tête-à-tête. A doe enticement might trump and triumph over a gathering of the same-sexed-species, but a party in the woods is still –well, a party.

 
            And so they run into the festivities, roadways and regulations be damned.


            In the deer’s case, an easy, albeit life-threatening hurdle, past my car accomplished his mission.


            In my son’s case, I am also the impediment. Well, I, or my ridiculously constructed obstacles. Let see –there’s homework and chores –not much competition there. But then there are all those other mindlessly delaying (and utterly unnecessary, from his point of view) questions. Stupid ones like: Where are you going? With whom? And the worst –What time will you return to the herd?


            Annoying is the term he most often uses to summarize my intrusions into his life. In less generous vocabulary, he’ll actually admit that he prefer if I didn’t speak at all.


            And there are times, I wish I could oblige.


            Certainly, setting him off to wander in the woods and the world on his own would entail less argument. Cutting him loose might indeed be freeing –for the both of us.


            I understand freedom.


            I can’t tell him that, though.


            I can’t tell him that my sometimes faltering memory doesn’t yet include memory erasure of my own adolescent yearnings for freedom. I wouldn’t suggest that my own reply to “where are you going?” was generally the same as his: “out.”


            To which, by the way, his grandfather would always retort: “out’s a big place.” Which then also meant that I wasn’t really going out anywhere until I handed over details.


            Nor can I reveal too many of my own tools of circumvention.


            My father loved the fact that the parlor grandfather clock granted gonging confirmation of just how late his little girl returned home from an evening out. And with all the times he carefully pulled those chains to assure accuracy of his beloved timepiece, you would have thought his gaze might have noted the “silence” option on the clock’s face and done some teenage math.


            His most soundly sleeping nights, I believe, were not because I had come in early, as requested, but rather because they were uninterrupted by any gonging at all. In preparation of a late night out, I would always set the chimes to “silence.”


            But I can’t tell Michael that I was once young. He wouldn’t believe me, anyway.


            I also can’t tell him that my tethering questions aren’t strictly motivated to constrain. It isn’t his freedom I fear so much, as it is everything else.


            I can’t tell him that at the end of any horror play of a parent’s imagination, her child is victim to more than his mere bravado against the boogeyman.

 
            In rational moments, I do the math.


            Statistically speaking, Michael will be fine. We’ve safely skirted the childhood abduction scenarios simply through his own growth. He’s a big boy. And we don’t live in a danger zone where gang recruitment pulls from the alleyways.


            In the sanest of days, I know all this.


            The days are rational. The nights –not so much.


            So while I can swallow my caveats when Michael relates an after-the-fact-adventure, and attribute the harrowing details to youthful hyperbole, the replay of it all in my dreams is another matter. I bite away the criticisms I might render to keep the conversations coming –his words are now dispersed, as if from an eyedropper, in drips.

 
            But I can’t overlook a blown curfew or a communication blackout. Especially when daylight can burn like a two-ended candle. The question of whether I am wasting precious time with inaction lurks like a skulking figure shadowed by the torch of media-lit klieg lights. If only, if only, I imagine, as I watch the eleven o’clock news recaps of the horrific turn-of-events that could have been forestalled by action –if only.


            I try to rely on the math.


            I do.

 
            But then, from a family who cared and had the means to save him, how could he have fallen so deeply into the bottle? How did another accept drugs as if they were gift-wrapped treasures from his friends? A taken chance, a wrong split-second action, and gone –an airline ticket away to retrieve a body, instead of a boy. A motorcycle accident, a car crash. If losing a single child to a freak accident was such an aberration, then how was it possible to lose a second to an accident that could only, when set against his brother’s, be described as impossible?


            These are the impossibilities we fear. They happen. They couldn’t, they shouldn’t, they do.


            And that’s why the metaphor.


            Somewhere there’s another young buck, on a mission.

            And in the immortality of his soul and the passion of the moment, he tries to hurdle an accelerating automobile –and misses.