Our Children, Ourselves

Children can thaw the iciest of souls and bring the most unlikely people together. Do you want to befriend those parents of the new kid in your son’s class? Compliment their child. You’ll be invited to dinner faster than you would be than if you spent hours with them on the bleachers. Trying to win someone over? A nice word or two about their offspring will transform them from foe to friend in a heartbeat. Even the meanest man on earth will turn into Tom Hanks when they hear nice words about their kids. People believe this reflects well on their parenting skills, and in most cases it does.

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the Town Hall arena for the second debate, the lack of a handshake was awkward and out of place for the situation. (Maybe Hillary was afraid Donald, “The Octopus,” might grab her inappropriately.) The chill in the air must have made the auditorium seem like a walk-in refrigerator. They couldn’t have been more distant than bitter ex-lovers, despite Trump hovering behind Clinton like a serial predator. When it was his turn to talk, the vitriol flew. He reminded us about a doomed USA and how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket. Punctuated by odd sniffing, there were endless put downs, repetitions of the word ‘disaster’ and crazy assertions. Adding insult to injury, Trump said his opponent had hate in her heart and should be locked up.

Then the magic happened. Near the end of the debate, an audience member asked what the candidates admired in each other. We all racked our brains and scratched our heads wondering how Clinton would respond. Despite the difficulty of the question, she did not miss a beat. Clinton complimented Trump on his children. She said,

…Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.

The seas parted, the angels started singing and the planets aligned. All was right with the world. The Republican candidate puffed out his chest. It was as if Charlize Theron had called him sexy. America was great again! In fact, Trump was so proud, so tickled, that he lost himself completely. When it was his turn to respond, he contradicted himself from an earlier debate when he questioned Clinton’s stamina. But in the afterglow of her kind words, he said,

I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.

A burst of sunshine lit up the dark dismal campaign. The two candidates approached each other and shook hands, ending the session on a positive note. All was well. Even if it was only for a moment.

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A Cautionary Tale for Travelers Renting a Car Overseas

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This week, 19-year old Matt Guthmiller became the youngest person to navigate a small plane around the world by himself. The Boston Globe reported the American MIT student he had a fairly smooth run, but experienced a setback at a stop in Abu Dhabi. Apparently, the technician servicing the plane filled it with diesel, instead of aviation gas. Fortunately, Matt caught the error right away.

Last summer, I rented a car to travel from Paris to Normandy with my family. One evening, after a full day of sightseeing on the coast, we headed south. Excited to have a lovely country dinner and go the Mont St. Michel, we needed to fuel up first. We went to several stations before stumbling upon one that wasn’t closed and accepted our credit card. Relieved, we gleefully filled the tank and planned our evening. After dinner and the Mont, we’d enjoy our last night at the charming chateau we so enjoyed. Visions of foie gras and a cold glass of rose danced in my head.

Our pleasant reverie was interrupted when the car wouldn’t start. Tired and hungry, I tried to be positive. It was probably just a dead battery and there were plenty of cars around to jump us, so I wasn’t that concerned. Suddenly, my husband ran over to the fuel pump, studied the label and turned a ghostly shade of white. Like the young pilot’s experience in Abu Dhabi, the wrong fuel was used. I wasn’t too upset. I figured someone could just siphon the unleaded gas and pump in diesel. And we’d be on our way. Le Mont St. Michel in the moonlight beckoned! I told the non-English speaking girl at the register about our plight. My laissez-faire attitude changed when I noticed how big her eyes were getting. When she put her hands over her mouth, I knew we were really up the junction. A local man standing nearby said in perfect English, “It’s okay. Nobody died.”

Not a terrible place to wait for a tow truck.

Not a terrible place to wait for a tow truck.

Yves arrived with his tow truck 40 minutes later. I thought he’d be able to do the fuel transfer right there in the parking lot. But as daylight faded, so did my optimism. Yves kept saying, “Non” and “Demain.”

Of all the conversational French I had brushed up on, “Where are you taking us in your tow truck?” was not something I had practiced.

Despite not speaking a word of English, Yves was incredibly helpful. He brought us to the closest hotel, about 30 miles from his garage. When we arrived, we must have looked incredibly pathetic because the woman at the front desk was so sympathetic. The crying helped. “Pretend you’re camping,” I said to my daughter when she asked about clean clothes and a toothbrush.

We put our limited belongings in a dark room that smelled like cigarettes and went back outside. We scavenged for food like the stray cats we saw in the neighborhood. It was nearly midnight and a man in an apron was closing up his shop. Having not eaten in for 11 hours, we begged him to feed us. He gruffly scolded us in French, telling us it was too late, but he softened up. He made us pizzas and served us the best beer we’ve ever had.

After a restless night in a very hot room, we went to the garage to pick up the car. It was not an easy fix. Like Mr. Guthmiller’s technician, Yves had to drain the fuel, irrigate and decontaminate the tank and re-fill it with the right stuff. When he handed us the keys, we were so elated to be on our way that we gave him the Calvados we bought for our cousins, who had been hosting us in Paris.

Our setback was over, but the sting would linger for days. The garage bill wasn’t cheap and our last night at the chateau was money down the drain. Talk about learning the hard (and expensive) way.

No more lamb stew and apple tarte tatin for us. “Make sure you grab an extra baguette from the breakfast buffet,” I said. My husband and daughter, beacons of composure throughout the whole ordeal, were not amused.

On the hour-long drive back to the chateau, we played Monday morning quarterback. How could we have made such a huge mistake? Why wasn’t there a sticker on the tank with information about what fuel to use? Were we so emotionally exhausted from seeing the American cemetery and D-Day beaches that we couldn’t see straight? Why didn’t the guy at the rental place warn me? (After all, I didn’t instill much confidence when I got behind the wheel and asked him where neutral was. He asked if I had experience with a manual transmission and I nodded. I did not tell him I hadn’t touched a stick shift for 20 years. I imagined it must be like riding a bike. Switching to an automatic was not possible, since they are rare in Europe and you have to reserve them far in advance.) As we sputtered out of the garage, I thought I heard something like, “Les Americains sont stupides.”

Important Tip: The significant amount of money saved by renting a stick shift auto is not worth the stress if you don’t usually drive one. This became clear when I kept stalling on the way out of Paris. (It still amazes me that we survived the trip.)

Back at the chateau, we arrived just in time to miss breakfast. A first world problem, I realized, but I was crestfallen.The dining room was so elegant. And the homemade croissants? Mon Dieu! We planned the trip a year in advance and saved up for months so we could stay in lush, historical surroundings like this. Taking a last, longing look around the castle, I ran my fingers along the library’s brocade upholstery and admired the 15th century tapestries in the foyer. On the way out, we paid the bill and explained to our charming host why we had not come “home” the night before. With a twinkle in his eye, he said reassuringly, “People put the wrong fuel in their autos all the time! This happens to practically everyone who comes here. Especially English people.”

We felt ten percent less stupid.

Back in Paris, we relayed the mishap to our cousin.

He laughed and replied in his charming accent, “It happens to everyone. But only for one time.”

Yet this won’t happen to you. Or to Mr. Guthmiller– whether he reads this or not.

Hell Freezes Over: My Teen Gets a Smartphone

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Last year, I launched a public relations effort to explain why I would not be buying a smartphone for my teenager. I wrote a blog for a leading website, was quoted in news stories and penned a guest column for the local paper. I supplemented the publicity with a community outreach effort. I begged parents to hold off on smartphones so the playing field would be leveled for kids that didn’t have one. My daughter was not thrilled, but my reasoning eventually made sense.

“I can’t argue with any of the points you make in your articles,” she said. ” I really don’t need a smartphone.”

That music to my ears echoed for weeks. Talk about a successful PR campaign.

Surprisingly, when she turned 15, I started getting pressure. Not from my daughter, but from others. Some parents called me a “Tiger Mom.” Even my husband tried to wear me down. One friend said,

“Everyone else her age has a smartphone. That poor kid is going to end up in therapy.”

But the sun continued to rise and set every day without a smartphone. My daughter was doing just fine. When she did complain, a rare occurrence, I reminded her about how they are are a want, not a need. The more I saw teens and increasingly younger kids glued to their devices, the more indignant I got. The thought of my intelligent, thoughtful daughter playing “Candy Crush,” or group chatting at all hours, made me physically ill. She’s on the shy side, so I wanted to see her socializing with peers instead of being glued to her phone.

Not only that, many adults I knew were cursing the day they caved in because their kids have turned into teenage mutant smartphone zombies, never to be seen again.

I often read Facebook and Twitter comments that said things like, “I got my kid a smartphone. It was nice knowing him.”

I would sign her up for this kind of madness over my dead body. Then the unthinkable happened.

It was a Friday and my daughter had just come home from school. Exams were coming up and she was hot and cranky. After yelling, “I hate this phone!” she plugged her four-year-old device into the charger and disappeared into her room. A few minutes later, I sat down on her bed. “We will get you a smartphone,” I said matter-of-factly.

(What did I just say??? I surprised even myself.)

My daughter looked dazed and confused.  I continued, “Your grades are excellent, you’re mature and responsible, you practice your piano and you help around the house. You even read books, God love ‘ya. Are you still interested?”

She looked at me like I just gave her keys to a new car.

There would be conditions and expectations. I reinforced that smartphones are not a lifestyle necessity, but a luxury. She had to agree to the “electronic device rules” we set up when she was in middle school. (Of course the list was supplemented to address 24/7 Internet access.)

Faster than she could say, “I promise,” we were off to the mobile phone store. Like a moth to a flame, she fluttered across the showroom to the object of her desire: a white, iPhone 5s. When she opened that rectangular white box, she looked as though she had discovered buried treasure.To protect it, she bought a pink and purple case her own money. Ever since, she is cherishing her new acquisition and treats it with kid gloves. For me, instead of feeling like our retail excursion was a dreaded rite of passage, I am proud.

My daughter got a smartphone the old fashioned way. She earned it.These days, she’s more sensible than I ever imagined. She’s well aware that I frown upon any smartphone usage when with others, so she’s considerate. (She knows I will throw it out the window if she starts texting when I’m driving her someplace.) I am optimistic this behavior will continue, although a few infractions are expected.

So to help make a smooth transition to a smartphone, here’s some advice:

1. Patience
If they lose their cell phone or it gets broken, get it replaced with the same type of device. Don’t get worn down and upgrade to a smartphone if you don’t think they’re ready. The longer you wait, the more appreciative your child will be. You will be much happier too, instead of being filled with dread.
2. Responsibility
The child pays for the activation fee, taxes and the data plan. I was blown away when my daughter volunteered to an extra $10 per month for insurance.
3. Control
Buy the phone. (He who giveth can taketh away.)
4. Consistency
Adhere to the rules you set up when your child got his or her first electronic device. Don’t waver. This will be hard, but worth the work. If a smartphone is your child’s first, think it through very carefully. (There’s no turning back!) Are they old enough to handle the Internet when you’re not around? If not, a basic phone will do.
5. Reinforcement
Remind your child that a smartphone is not an entitlement. Like driving, using one is a privilege.

Giving in to constant pressure is the fate of many parents. But caving in leaves many adults frustrated and regretful. So every time the smartphone question rears its ugly head, keep repeating, “Patience, Grasshopper. Good things come to those who wait.”

 

The Show Must Go On — When Sensibility Trumps Sensitivity

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Nothing says Americana quite like musical theater.

The entertaining format has been enjoyed by all ages for decades, despite rampant stereotypes and exaggerated stock characters. Most traditional musicals take place in another era, so characterizations are often overlooked (and laughed at) by many theatergoers. Others aren’t so forgiving. To make these old shows more palatable, some groups are going so far as to ‘sanitize’ them. But doing so washes away all sense of history and context, not to mention the artistic integrity of many well-loved productions. Our very own, uniquely American originals will be lost forever. Not to mention that altering these productions is fruitless. How is it possible to change a character, from one type to another, without offending someone else? When does sensitivity become censorship? (Not to mention violating copyright licenses.) Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers are rolling over in their graves.

A recent Boston area production, of Thoroughly Modern Millie, generated quite a buzz for a high school musical that didn’t even star Zac Efron. Feature stories appeared in The Boston Globe, including one that landed on the front page. A TV program, community newspaper articles, blogs and letters to the editor continue to roll in. (In fact, it was a local blog that launched a thousand conversations.)

Any theater publicist would be jumping for joy about all the attention. But in this case, it’s had quite the opposite effect. The ‘ink’ about “Millie” has not been about the extraordinary talent or dedication of the cast and crew. Instead, it’s been negative, focusing on outdated Asian stereotypes in a story that takes place in 1922.

Had the legitimate feelings of the Asian community been discounted, the theater should have gone dark. Happily, for the hard working young thespians at Newton North, the curtain went up for “Millie” at Theater Ink, the school’s teaching and working theater. The award-winning musical, that has been performed by high schools across the country for more than 30 years,  played for three nights in Newton. At least one of the performances was sold out.

Going on with the show was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

Discussions about stereotypes in “Millie” began even before the first rehearsal. The high school worked with the Office of Human Rights to come up with a way to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing negative images with students and the public. Workshops and discussions about stereotypes and their impact were held throughout production. Most importantly, Newton North has faith and confidence that its young people are mature enough to interpret outdated stereotypes. There was also the fun factor to consider.  Featuring a large cast of characters, the show enables many students to participate. Combined with entertaining song and dance numbers, plus its comic script, make “Millie” a staple of many theater programs.

Before each performance, the director drew the audience’s attention to an extensive production note in the program. It specifically addressed one of the most negative characters in the story.  It read, in part:

“Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain…She is racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors.  Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes…the opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School…in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture.  Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open mindedness…”

 

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When the show’s run ended, Newton North issued a lengthy and contrite letter to the community. Following is an excerpt:

“It is our sincere hope that this production is one of both artistic integrity and one where significant learning has occurred.  It certainly was never and is never our intent to offend members of our school or Newton community.  Theatre Ink prides itself on being “Newton North’s Teaching and Working Theatre.” The process of producing this show, and the thoughtful and sometimes challenging dialogue it has generated among staff, students, and the broader Newton community, exemplifies the program’s commitment to explore, critique, and interpret how the human experience is conveyed through the arts.  As the curtain went up this past weekend we brought the constructive conversation and learning process that our school community has engaged in over these past few months to an audience of students, parents, and community members.  We hope that you will choose to participate in it with the same appetite for learning that we have seen in our students – a genuine desire to understand our differences, our history, and ourselves…

After the letter went out, the school held a public forum, attended by the members of school’s administration, Theater Ink directors, parents and students.

Newton is a standard bearer of political correctness. (This is a city with schools that promote a campaign called, “Respecting Human Differences,” hold lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender assemblies and ban Halloween.) So the extra effort made by the high school to head off concerns about an old fashioned musical is not surprising for those who of us who live here. Expected or not, the extensive outreach for “Modern Millie” is public relations at its finest. Institutions across the country should look to Newton North’s example as a model of urban sensitivity and respect.

Theater Ink has been a treasure trove of talent and high caliber performances for many years, providing students with endless golden opportunities. The community at large also reaps the benefits of this theater. Hopefully, the spirit of those who work so hard on its behalf has not been diminished by the “Millie” firestorm. Image

 

Just say “No” to Smartphones for Teens

Once you say "yes," there's no going back.

Once you say “yes,” there’s no going back.

Just say NO to Smartphones for Teens

If you’re a parent or guardian who’s on the fence about getting a smartphone for a teen, think very carefully about it before you say “yes.”  Nine out of 10 parents I have spoken with who did, regret the decision.

Following is an excerpt from a blog that appears on The Huffington Post (click on the title of this blog entry for the full text):

 Mobile devices can be damaging to a young person’s psyche and it’s easy to get hooked. A recent South Korean report found that the smartphone addiction rate was 18% among teenagers.  Dr. Jonghun Lee, a professor of psychiatry and the study’s lead researcher, presented the findings at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting this summer. He stressed that the more smartphones are overused, the greater the risk for severe psychopathologies in adolescents. Those who are dependent on them experience anxiety, insomnia and depression.  Some self-aware teens are realizing the toll that checking their smartphones is taking on them.  An 18-year old girl told a newspaper reporter recently, said, “I hate doing it, but I can’t help it…Why did I buy a smartphone? Sometimes I stay up all night using Facebook and Twitter.  I quickly became addicted.” 

A Pew Research Center study found teenage smartphone usage increased 23 percent from 2011 to 2012 and that 37 percent of teenagers owned smartphones last year. Dr. Lee says, “The number of adolescents addicted will increase because the popularization of smartphones is an inevitable social trend. And the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are.”

There’s a lot of talk about limits, balance and moderation. But setting restrictions on smartphone and Internet usage is easier said than done. The Web has become a necessity for homework, school communications and research. So it can be hard to distinguish between an assignment, recreational viewing or school-related texting. Monitoring usage consistently, enforcing time constraints and being on top of content can be overwhelming for most busy parents. This becomes even more difficult when their kids are literally carrying the Internet around with them.  

Parents who say “no” level the playing field for the kids who don’t own smartphones.  Moms and dads unite!  Teachers, other parents, society-at-large and your kids (eventually) will thank you.

Camera-ready madness or Why I hate great movies like Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from "Silver Linings Playbook."

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the diner scene from “Silver Linings Playbook”

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s hope it doesn’t fall off the radar. Luckily, an increasing number of TV shows and movies with mentally ill characters are being immortalized on discs and streaming video. As a result, viewers will be reminded about the affliction and its toll on families and people who love them. One of the most popular productions depicting the condition, “Silver Linings Playbook,” has received critical acclaim from many groups. With its recent DVD release, the award-winning movie will extend its life, attracting an even wider following. There is one problem: although well-written and superbly acted, the film’s characterization as a comedy is misguided. It’s like calling “Modern Family” a drama. After all, seeing Bradley Cooper, the “Sexiest Man Alive,” rant and rave, waking up his stressed out parents, seems downright funny. Hilarity ensures when the beautiful and talented Jennifer Lawrence acts up in a diner. But to many of us, scenes like these are as amusing as watching a car accident.

In 1988, movie audiences giggled over the antics of the autistic Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” I went to see the movie with my friends, blissfully unaware of how close to home this movie would hit. Each time the audience laughed at Raymond, I tried to understand they were coming from another world, untouched by someone who exhibits inappropriate and weird behavior. To me, Raymond was real. Every time he embarrassed his brother, played by Tom Cruise, my heart sank. Everyday incidents flooded my mind, from having to protect my older brother from bullies, to his embarrassing outbursts in public. Or when he would play with broken pieces of plastic for hours or wax on about nonsense while my friends tried not to laugh. “He’s talking ragtime again,” my Nana would say. Throughout “Rain Man,” I wanted to scream, “What’s so &%$# funny?” I kept my cool because speaking up would classify me as a kill joy or a drama queen. Instead, I vowed to avoid films about mental illness.

As a movie buff, I am drawn to all films, particularly those with great reviews. So I tried again with “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Prozac Nation” and others. Through this exposure, I was convinced that I could become desensitized and eventually gain some objectivity. I reminded myself that most people just don’t understand the havoc that mental illness wreaks. Most importantly, I willed myself to toughen up, so others wouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around me.

These movies still affect me, but not as profoundly. Fictionalized portrayals will always be out there, but they will be misunderstood by people who don’t live with the real characters. No film, book or entreaty by an actor will ever improve these situations, but the publicity can result in better policies and eliminate stigmas so that more people will get help. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 60 percent of people with the disease are not treated. So I’m all for raising awareness, no matter where it comes from — even if Hollywood movie stars are delivering the message. Now that’s a silver lining.

Despite increased awareness, we may still get an “I don’t understand” or “Buck up and get over it” look if we criticize popular films because they’re too painful or unrealistic for us. So now I just go with the flow. The other day, a friend said “Silver Linings Playbook” was the best movie he’s seen in a long time. When he asked my opinion, I said, “It was great.” Nothing more. My family got the straight dope.