Monday, June 30, 2008

Hair today

So we've been having long discussions as a family about each of us having to cut back on our spending to accommodate my daughter's college expenses ($50,000 a year!). C has been trying hard to go along with the program, living austerely by her lights. But a few days ago she wanted to make an appointment with a hair dresser who, even after discounting $50 (because she had her prom do done there), charged $125 for a trim. After much haggling we arrived at a solution: I would pay my maximum for a haircut—$75 (well, I pay $15 for my cuts at Astor, but I do understand that that's a pittance, and it's a mystery even to me how those barbers pay their rent)—and she would pay the remainder out of her graduation/allowance funds. Anyway, afterwards, she was very pleased with her haircut and making plans for her next one since her cutter had told her she needed to get a trim every 8 weeks, and worrying about how she would arrange her haircuts at Skidless.

"You know, once you get to college, you may find that you don't care quite so much about these things," I ventured (primly). "So it may not be so much of an issue. You'll develop other interests, and how you look just won't seem that important."

"Mom," she said (knowingly). "You never stop caring about how you look. Admit it, you still care."

And she's right. My standards are lower than hers, but I fuss endlessly over how to camouflage my shmoo-shaped body (without breasts, my figure is like a butternut squash—narrow on top and wide at my bottom) and how to arrange my sparse gray hair to cover my scalp (it's a lie that everyone's hair comes back thicker and more lustrous after chemo; some of us get less hair, period—and what little there is comes in without its original color, perhaps because, as in my case, it was dyed anyway), and window-shop and really shop pretty much continuously (o.k., mostly at Daffy's), looking for the article of clothing that will make me beautiful. And sometimes, like C, I think I've found it—and, yes, for a few moments it does make me happier.

At heart, I'm still 13. But the gift I was given (and the gift I keep getting) is that I was unable to achieve a popular standard of physical beauty. So I had to define myself in other ways. I sought to identify myself as smart, nice, responsible, an independent thinker, "good." C's handicap is that the world considers her beautiful and adulates her for it. She's in the running beauty-wise. She doesn't feel so confident in other domains. So, like any pragmatist, she rides her strength. If I had that strength, would I not ride it too?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Agenda for my daughter

She didn't win any academic awards or sports medals, didn't distinguish herself in any way (by her own estimate, she ranked in the bottom third of her class), but last week, when my daughter, C, 17, graduated from Bronx High School of Science, it was a huge achievement. She was overcome by panic and dread her first two years, worried that she didn't look right, that she wouldn't have anyone to sit with at lunch, that she couldn't do the work, that her teachers hated her (and they did hate her, I could tell in parent-teacher conferences, hated the way she twisted the ends of her hair, hated the way she tried to look cool and uninterested, hated her for not participating)—yet she dragged herself off most mornings (or at least allowed herself to be shoved out the door), and she made it, she graduated.

Throughout those first tough years—during which she smoked and drank and took money from my purse and lied and broke her curfew and ate lunch in the park that I was warned was the threshold to hell (although now that it's all ancient history, I can see she was moderate in her misdemeanors)—I had a one-item agenda for her: that she graduate from high school. If she would just graduate, I would be satisfied. Anything else she chose to do after that would be fine with me. I would stop worrying. I would take pleasure in who she was and not ask her to be a different version of herself.

Now that she's graduated, alas, I've started a new agenda for her: that she love college, that she find meaningful work, that she look within and find her true self, that she become a force in her own life.

These are good things. But why do I hold her to a higher standard than I have met in my own life? I didn't so much love college as the social life I found there, didn't find meaningful work (although it sometimes fell into my lap), haven't found my true self, continue to be blown about rather than seize hold of my life.

I stumbled into my 30-year "career" at a major newsmagazine when an acquaintance got me a job as a night proofreader (every shift a slumber party!) and became a copy editor when proofreaders began to be phased out (a tad more gravity amid the hilarity) and later, putting one foot in front of the other in a not-very-imaginative way, a fact checker, a reporter, a writer, and since 9/11, when I couldn't take the stress anymore, a copy editor again. At 58, with copy-editing an endangered profession, I'm hoping to eke out my employment till I reach a respectable retirement age. The profession and my working life will expire together.

It's a trivial job. I find answers to questions no one bothers to ask, fix infelicities no one notices and devise solutions to conundrums that puzzle no one. Would anyone else spend 9 hours a day resolving these:

—"It is a technique so cutting edge it is not yet available for use in humans": The adjective "cutting-edge" is hyphenated when it precedes a noun, but should it be hyphenated when it follows a noun, as it does here?

—"Less than 1% have a negative reaction": Should "less than" be "fewer than" since the ultimate referent is animals rather than a percentage? Isn't that why the verb "have" is plural?

—"The duo has a reasonable shot at success": Should "duo" be construed as a plural, since it refers to two people in business together and not a musical act?

—Is the plural of cabernet sauvignon "cabernets sauvignons" or "cabernets sauvignon" or "cabernet sauvignons"?

—Then there's the can of words that is "eco": eco-friendly, eco-consciousness, eco-designer, eco-pad and eco-minded, but ecotour, ecoterrorism and ecotoxicology.

With C about to spend four years at Skidless, I no longer even think about another, more interesting job—or is that just an excuse? Like all the other excuses I've made all along for why I let life happen to me? And why do I think C shouldn't let life happen to her?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

They don't call it stinkwood for nothing

Every spring there comes a day when the rank smell of urine overtakes our apartment, and I think I can't put off changing the cat box another moment. But even after I dump the litter and scald the box, the stench lingers. And I find myself thinking hostile thoughts about the rascally Iggy and even the dainty Ivy. Then memory washes over me: Ah, yes, I remember, it is the annual blooming of the stinkwood tree, the sweetly named but pungent-smelling ailanthus, the tree that grew in Brooklyn, the roachlike primitive that can root in concrete, the giant weed that thrives just beyond my deck in lower Manhattan. When I moved in 26 years ago this month, it was a mere shrub, and now it's nearly six stories high. Kind of gangly, with some stubby, lopped-off branches where it was pruned to protect phone lines, it is infested many summers with tent worms, which migrate to our garden. Still, despite its bad odor for a few days each spring and the pests it sometimes harbors, it's an old friend, really, and like other old friends, a reflection of the warts and wens and wrinkles I too have accumulated over the years we've been neighbors, its raggedy New York resilience my own.