Archive for January, 2008

Teenage Drama Queen is Redundant – Twice

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Now that I have a teenage daughter, I’ve been trying to put her mood swings in the context of the way I acted when I was 15. I’m quite sure I wasn’t an overly emotional teenager; my mother would have killed me. She had already raised two “emo” daughters and had no patience for anyone else in the family “pulling a Tallulah” as my father called it. This phrase came from Tallulah Bankhead, a 1940’s movie actress who my father considered the epitome of a “drama queen.”

So even though I had witnessed the tears and fears of two older sisters during their high school years, I thought that my daughter would be more like me and keep her emotions on the inside. But as a very wise person recently told me, in a healthy family all feelings are tolerated. I’ll take that as encouragement that we’re on the right track as parents because she certainly doesn’t hold back any of what’s going on inside her when the pressure of school, friends, and activities becomes overwhelming. It spills out like a tsunami of emotion. As parents, it can be hard at those times to keep our footing and not get swept away by the waves of despair.

Like this past Saturday, Steve and I were out running errands when we got a call from Valerie that one of her friends had called to invite her to go shopping. The friend’s mom was going to drive several of them to the mall so they could all shop for dresses to the Valentine’s Day dance. This would seem like a straightforward question, but after a few minutes on the phone with Valerie, the whole issue looked like a pile of tangled yarn.

“That sounds fun, why don’t you go?” I suggested. “But I’m too tired and I have too much homework.” So the next logical response from me was, “Ok, then why don’t you stay home?” “But I’m always the one who can’t go because I’ve got homework, gymnastics or I’m too tired. I can never do anything fun.” “Then why don’t you go?” “But what if I go and I don’t have fun?” “It might do you good to get out of yourself, so why don’t you go.” “But I’m too tired and have too much homework.” Followed by heavy sobbing.

I know she’s in agony over this decision but I’m starting to get dizzy from making the loop around the track of this circular conversation again and again so I hand the phone to Steve. I’m thinking we should insist that she go just so we can have a break from the whining for the afternoon. But Steve wisely recognizes that what she is really asking for is some reassurance and very simple direction. “Just get dressed and go. You always have a good time with your friends and you won’t get any rest moping around the house wishing that you had gone. We’ll be home by 1:00 to take you to your friend’s house.”

We weren’t sure what would be waiting for us when we got home, but obviously some strong leadership was what was needed because when we came in the house, Valerie was dressed with her makeup on and her purse on her shoulder ready to go. She went to the mall and came home a new woman.

I never had any doubt, but raising a teenage daughter certainly points out the differences between boys and girls. I don’t think my 19 year old son, Ethan, has ever agonized about any decision, especially a social one. His phone conversations last about three seconds. “Do you want to come over?” He replies with, “No, I’m tired.” “Ok, bye.” And that’s the end of it. There are no ramifications whether he goes or stays home.

But where Valerie is concerned, there are no easy decisions. She frets about what she’s going to have for lunch, whereas Ethan isn’t the least bit concerned about where he’s going to college. Obviously my angst DNA wasn’t doled out equally among the kids.

Recently, I was describing my experiences with Valerie to a mother of young children and she said that it sounded just like what she was going through with her toddler. If she says black, her child says white, nothing is ever right, and a meltdown could be just around the corner. But then there are times when her two year old craves closeness and couldn’t be sweeter snuggling on the couch and watching a DVD.

That aspect holds true for Valerie as well. But instead of watching a Barney DVD, she was plastered up against me last night while we watched The Bourne Ultimatum. When I teased her that she was invading my personal space and sucking the life out of me, her response was that I gave up my right to personal space when I became a mother and that someday she’ll be gone and I’ll miss her clinging to me. She is so right.

So I guess I’m discovering what scientists and psychologists have known for years: that whether it’s a toddler or a teen, when the brain is going through a major reorganization, the behavior can be a little extreme but it’s all very normal. However, what worries me is this: they’re only a “terrible two” for a year, but a teenager for seven.

Mom Angst

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Our 19 year old son, Ethan, has been on my mind a lot lately, but not because he is doing anything illegal or immoral. Considering how perky he is at 7am when he’s heading out the door for his first class, at least I’m pretty sure he’s not.

The fact is that he’s a great kid with a lot of common sense. He keeps a B average at the JC, is appreciated at Blockbuster for being such hard-working and dependable employee, and if I give him two weeks advance notice, he’ll even clean up his room. And a teenage boy who talks to his parents? By 11pm when Steve and I can barely keep our eyes open, Ethan is just getting rolling about what makes any particular video game, internet site, or movie so awesome.

So you may be thinking with such a great teenager what have I got to be concerned about? I’m suffering from an acute case of “MA” ““ Mom Angst.

I worry about him because he is so darn happy with his life as it is now. He seems perfectly content with the four places that form the corners of his life: home, school, work, and friends. But I get concerned because he hasn’t made any plans for what he’s going to do when he finishes at the JC this semester. Yet the dichotomy is that when we sit down and discuss his future with him, he tells us he has plans that definitely do not include living at home and working full-time at an entry level job by the time he reaches 21.

But my efforts to encourage him to take some steps to do some research on what he’s going to do for life or school after the JC have not been met with a lot of enthusiasm on his part. I get a much more positive response when I ask him to mow the lawn. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if as a small child, that the doctors accidentally gave him an extra vaccination that makes him immune to “MA”. Stress can be contagious but not for Ethan. He is completely resistant to catching my fear about his future.

This is when I’m so grateful that I can express my frustration to Steve”¦before I pull out too many handfuls of my hair. He reminds me that like himself, Ethan is a late bloomer. Everyone does things at their own pace and that very few people actually have a straight road to where they end up. Perhaps Ethan just needs some help getting started on a path.

This helps me to slow down, and take a more compassionate approach to the overwhelming task that Ethan faces of figuring out where to go next. When I think back to my own experience, there was really only one option for me after high school. My Mom and Dad would pay for my education if I attended the (relatively inexpensive) state university that was about 15 minutes from our house so of course that’s what I did. I didn’t go through the steps of narrowing down schools to find one that matched my interests and personality. But wish I had, I think I would have learned a lot about what really was important to me, and in the end, my education would have meant more to me. 

I realized that I wasn’t helping the situation ““ and even if I could, sometimes it’s just hard to hear advice from a parent. So we’re getting some help from someone who specializes in the very situation we’re facing: engaging the student in the process of finding a school that really suits who they are and what they want to pursue, and of course, a school that might be willing to kick in a few bucks.

So my challenge now is to sit back and let the process unfold for both Ethan and us. And in the meantime, take some advice from one of Ethan’s favorite publications, “What, me worry?”

Nope, because I’ve got a really great son.

Would You Like Fries With That Latte?

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

A few days ago, as I was shuffling the newspapers on the kitchen table into a manageable stack, there was a headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that caught my eye: “McDonald’s Takes On A Weakened Starbucks.” The article went on to describe how McDonald’s plans to install “coffee bars” and hire baristas in 14,000 US locations this year.

Apparently, McDonald’s thinks that the customers buying Venti lattes at Starbucks would be willing to get a “super size” version at McDonald’s. Not me ““ I don’t believe that going to Starbucks and McDonald’s are equivalent experiences ““ but my marketing instincts about what holds sales potential might not be the best ““ I never would have thought that people would pay for water in bottles either.

Call me a corporate sell out, but I really like Starbucks. And when I thought about Starbucks and McDonald’s turning into the same place, I starting getting downright protective about my relationship with Starbucks ““ almost as if I were the snooty girl back in high school. “How dare McDonald’s think that I would go out with him!”

Back to reality”¦I feel so loyal to Starbucks because it represents a lot more to me than just a cup of coffee. I can get coffee at a 7Eleven. However, when I think of Starbucks, I remember the dozens of good times I’ve had there. I can get downright sentimental about it. Whether it is at the Starbucks five minutes from our house or when we’ve been on vacation, my memory is of sitting at one of their little round tables laughing with the kids and watching the girls linger over the whipped cream on their Vanilla Frappuccinos. And Starbucks continues to be a place of refreshment for us; when Steve and I need a change of scenery from our home office, we head to Starbucks for a sandwich and an iced tea.

But we would never consider going to McDonald’s even if we could get the same drinks and food there. When we deserve a break today, we go to Starbucks. So what makes Starbucks different ““ is it only better graphics and a couple of overstuffed chairs?

Even as devoted as I am to Starbucks, I have to admit there are a lot of similarities between the two places. Both offer a predicable, dependable experience. No matter what Starbucks (or McDonald’s) I go into, I know I’ll always find the same choices. I’m sure this is a major reason for the success of both places; once you have found a favorite item to order, it’s one less stress-causing decision to make.

And both places certainly cater to many of the same customers. There are as many moms with preschoolers in Starbucks in the morning as I’ve ever seen at a McDonald’s. In fact, I can imagine a time in the not to distant future when Starbucks introduces “Mermaid Meals” and outdoor “Starscapes” for the kids to play on.

But Starbucks has built their reputation on treating every customer like an individual. It’s almost a matter of pride for some people to show what a unique person they are by their drink order. Hence, the “extra hot, light foam, three pumps, half-caf” infinite combinations that are available at Starbucks.

But as anybody who has ever tried to order a cheeseburger without onions at McDonald’s will tell you, special requests bring their system to a halt. Everything about McDonald’s is about producing the same product over and over. So in a sense, no customer at McDonald’s is special, everyone gets the same order. And according to the WSJ article, this is going to be the case for their coffee bars too. Their process will be much more automated and with far fewer choices than at Starbucks.

I think McDonald’s cold systemization is a major reason why Starbucks doesn’t have a lot to fear from Mickey D’s venture into coffee drinks. It’s easy these days to start feeling like one of the nameless masses ““ so expressing your individuality ““ even if it’s just when ordering coffee ““ “Decaf soy latte for Colleen” ““ is important and why I believe people will continue to be loyal to Starbucks.

And customer service? McDonald’s has a long way to go to compete with Starbucks in that area. When my son was a barista at Starbucks, he would come home with stories about how someone could send a drink back time and time again if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Last time I picked up a quick dinner for my daughter at McDonald’s they left the fries out of the bag. When I told them about it the next time, their response was a sullen “Did you call it in?” And then they charged me for the fries again.

The issue of Starbucks being vulnerable to McDonald’s left me a little sad. I remember a time when IHOPs and Baskin Robbins were cool places to go”¦am I clinging to a place that’s on its way to becoming a has-bean? I hope not.

An Enchanted Place

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

There was an event planned during winter break that my daughter, Valerie, was looking forward to almost as much as Christmas itself: a shopping trip to San Francisco Centre.

We spent a wonderful afternoon there last spring on a day that we had planned to go to the zoo but when the weather turned bad on the drive into the City, we ended up at San Francisco Centre instead. And once we set foot on the curved escalators that held the promise of Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and 408 other shopping experiences, no one in the family ““ well at least none of the females in the family ““ could have cared less about koalas.

We had planned to spend that day watching animals and eating hot dogs and almost by happenstance, instead we ended up in a retail palace of marble and glass. So in the nine months following our first visit, San Francisco Centre began to take on magical qualities in the minds of my daughters. It became a little like the Brigadoon of malls ““ a place of enchantment rising up out of the fog across the Golden Gate Bridge. A mystical mall that only appears during winter and spring break, and when you leave, its stores fade into the mist only to reappear at the next school holiday.

So it was with this kind of anticipation that we set out on our return trip to San Francisco Centre last Sunday. Because Steve was going with us, it had the feel from the start of being a special vacation day and not just a shopping outing with mom.  And though the girls had Christmas money from an aunt and Grandma to spend, they made a pact with Dad that there wasn’t going to be any heavy duty clothes shopping ““ meaning that whatever they brought wasn’t going to require trying it on ““ so Steve wouldn’t need to pack a toothbrush ““ his sketchbook would be a sufficient pastime for him while they were deciding among the multitude of purchase options.

Prior to going, both Jennifer and Valerie gave a lot of thought to what they were going to wear. Their only regret during our first visit was that while tennis shoes and sweatshirts might be fine for the zoo, they felt very underdressed among the sophisticated shoppers and upscale stores in the Centre. So special attention was given to looking the part of cosmopolitan consumer ““ in other words, they left the house feeling “cute.”

When we arrived at our destination, first on the agenda was lunch in the basement food court. The array of options was overwhelming, from Korean barbeque to cream puffs. Once we got our bearings and found options that appealed to everyone’s taste (sushi for Steve and Valerie and pizza for Jennifer), I went in search of Peet’s for coffee. Although this is hardly a complex transaction, I was surprised how when I placed my order in these unfamiliar and somewhat bewildering surroundings, I felt unsure of what the procedure was, as if I was in a foreign country. Never mind looking hip and like I’m a regular; I’m a tourist visiting the big city for a day.

The store that Valerie and Jennifer had enjoyed most on our first visit and were looking forward to shopping in again is a Japanese stationery store called Mai Do. Steve knew he should find a comfy chair because he would be camping out there for quite some time while they examined sets of tiny erasers shaped like sushi and origami paper.

We spent the rest of the day looking at earrings for Valerie to spend her “Aunt Kathy money” on. I don’t know if it was all the perfume in the air or if I finally just relaxed enough to have some fun and let go of my practical side, but I bought a necklace too as a souvenir. It makes me happy every time I wear it.

Before we left San Francisco Centre, we agreed that we had soaked up as much fun as could possibly be had on one visit. And the great thing is that unlike Brigadoon, we don’t have to wait another 100 years for it to reappear. We could go there again next weekend.