Sunday, February 26, 2012

Let's hear it for the boys

A few days ago, my friend Jeff posted a photo in which he and another of my almost-lifelong friends, Bill, are standing in front of an ice-cream shop. It's a typical photo, albeit a bit whimsical; we're all in our late 40s now, and going to the ice-cream store probably constitutes a little more fun than we have in our everyday lives.

The photo made me smile for any number of reasons; the years have treated both men well, and the faces that smiled back at me were the ones I remembered from our high-school days. But the way I felt was derived from more than that; these guys, and a few others, were a huge part of my history. And my friendships with them were considered a bit odd in an age where, as my dad often told me, "Nice girls don't call boys."

I don't think I'm the only woman who has ever been more comfortable having friendships with guys than with girls. During my formative years, from junior high through college, although I had female friends, my maximum comfort level was achieved when I hung out with boys. (And let's cut to the chase here -- I'm talking about platonic friendships. The guys who were my friends were not the ones I dated.)

Friendships didn't work out with all guys, mind you; I gravitated toward the ones who had more to them than met the eye. They weren't necessarily the jocks or the student-council representatives; they were nice guys who liked to write or read or listen to music or talk for hours. It was easy to open up to them about other, less worthy boys, or about school anxieties or family issues.

And the crux of it was just that: They listened, and they didn't seem to judge. We attended a Catholic school, and through eighth grade, we were grouped with the same 40 kids, give or take, year after year. We all knew each other, and we all had formed opinions, right or wrong, about our classmates.

In some ways, I was a square peg in a round hole. My hair wouldn't part in the middle and "feather back," and I read the dictionary for fun. I was also the only person in my class who didn't have a mom. Maybe some of my perceptions about others' opinions of me weren't correct, but at that point in my life, I didn't feel I fit in.

And my guy friends didn't care. They seemed to value the fact that I was smart and a good listener, and that I wasn't too shy to ask the kinds of questions that would lead them to talk about things they had wanted to talk about, but didn't know how. They didn't care that I had glasses and looked nothing like Marcia Brady, or that I was way too tall, having hit my full adult height of 5'4" when I was all of 11.

And there was more: If one of them liked a girl and was reluctant to let her know, I was the go-between, the eighth-grade romance broker. And I was also there to sympathize with them if that first crush just didn't work out.

High school and college were much the same, but on a different scale because I had boyfriends to factor into the equation. Everyone caught up to me in height and I lost the glasses; I was suddenly dateable, but that didn't put an end to my relationships with my guy friends. I still laugh at a yearbook inscription from the guy who was my boyfriend for two years in high school: "You spend more time with Marty and Steve than you do with me, and that's kind of weird. But I guess it's OK."

In retrospect, the fact that my guy friends valued me for the person I was had a great deal of bearing on the fact that I reached adulthood with my self-esteem intact. A boyfriend may have turned out to be not so great, but Bill or Jeff or Chris or Steve or Marty or Tom was there to remind me that my self-worth should be derived from so much more than the opinion of a boy who had dumped me because he fancied someone blonder or skinnier.

Don't get me wrong; I had some tried-and-true girlfriends during those years, too. Tricia and Susan and Francie and some others helped me understand that not everyone was a "Mean Girl," and my friendships with them, all of which still endure to some degree, led me to reach out to some of the women who are my best friends today.

Male/female friendships are more difficult in the adult world; I still have them, but they're different, as no one wants to be perceived as a boundary-crosser. I'm really happy, though, to see that each of my kids has close platonic friends of the opposite gender, and that my husband counts at least one woman among his closest allies at work.

As I look at the picture of Jeff and Bill and see photos of some of my other pals and their wives and families on Facebook, I wonder if those guys have any idea just how much they meant to a girl who was trying to find her way in the world. I doubt they realize that just by being themselves, they helped me let down my guard, let people in and begin to reach out.

My ability to be a good person in adulthood -- or to try to, anyway -- was shaped, at least in some degree, by their tutelage. And all these years later, as I smile at those still-young faces in the photo, it's high time to say "thanks."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Willie Nelson, Claymation pigs, and ... why can't I stop crying?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve worn my emotions on my sleeve – ad nauseam, in fact. When I was 9, I hung a sign around my neck before a family gathering that read, “I’m irritated and I don’t feel like talking.”

But this is ridiculous.

I’m chalking up to hormones the fact that I cry at the drop of a pin. I cry so much that it can be highly embarrassing and probably makes others feel uncomfortable as well. And I’m ready for it to stop anytime.

Just to be clear, it’s not a bury-your-head-in-your-hands-and-sob kind of crying. It’s a tendency for my eyes to overfill at the slightest provocation, whether it’s a commercial or a show-choir ballad or a story at work about someone’s ill parent.

I realized how ridiculous things have become a week or so ago when I was watching the Grammys and the Chipotle commercial came on -– the one where Willie Nelson sings “The Scientist” by Coldplay and Claymation-type pigs are running about. Granted, that commercial is award-winning and really well done. But by the end of it -– and I’d seen it before, mind you -– I was crying. Not making noise, but tears were flowing onto the front of my shirt, and I had to sniff repeatedly. Over Claymation pigs who are allowed to run and play.

The only person in the room with me at that time was Kevin, so that wasn’t a huge deal -– unlike the times I find my eyes filling at work, and that becomes a whole different issue. My boss comes into my office and says something nice, and I have to say a silent prayer that I don’t become emotional on the spot. A client sends a complimentary email and faster than I can type back “thank you,” my mascara is running.

I’m a pretty happy person overall, and about 95 percent of the time, the tears are not borne of sadness. That makes things even weirder. Last night, I was watching my kids’ band perform live. It was a happy occasion, but about the same time the first sound came out of the microphone, I was toast.

As I’ve entered this particular phase in the life cycle, I’ve done a lot of reading about changes that can occur in a woman’s physiology and psyche, and I’m reassured that the waterworks are highly normal; I also don’t have a problem explaining to a person who might be taken aback by my need to carry tissues: “I’m hormonal, and I get weepy. It will pass.” But I’m also conscious of the fact that to some people, excess emotion can be equated with weakness. And while I may be accused of being many things. I’m certainly not weak. So I try not to let it bother me too much.

And I’ve got to say -– today was a good day. A friend at work told me about her father’s cancer treatment, and I held it together. I heard a song on my iPod that usually makes me tear up, and I didn’t. But I’m not about to watch the Chipotle commercial again; I know my limits, and I’m no match for those Claymation pigs … especially when farmer reaches down and pats them on their little Claymation heads.

Friday, February 10, 2012

When the weird things you do as a parent DON'T come back to haunt you

When my kids were little, we'd often play a game as I drove them places in the car. No, it wasn't anything as benign as "Twenty Questions" or license-plate Bingo. It went something like this:

"Honky-Tonk Women" comes on the radio. "Who is this?" I ask. "Rolling Stones!" Caroline, 3, shouts. "Who's their lead singer?" I ask. "Mick Jagger!" Scott, 6, yells in response. Then, anticipating my next question, he calls out, "And Charlie Watts plays the drums!"

I never pretended to be a conventional parent.

OK, I'm exaggerating. My household also was well-versed in Raffi, and the kids could sing Sharon, Lois and Bram's Skinnamarink in harmony. They sang in church, and, pre-High School Musical, they begged for every Disney video as soon as a new one came out. And they warbled along, of course, with Sesame Street and Barney. So we had the children's-music thing down pat.

But they loved their Stones and their Skynyrd; their dad occasionally threw in some country and bluegrass, and I countered that with Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks. When Caroline was 6, she couldn't read, but she could recreate, move by move, the Spice Girls' Wannabe video.

And we kept the car game going. On the way to dance or religious ed or hockey, my kids learned that it really wasn't Yoko's fault that the Beatles broke up. They knew the interpersonal tangles behind all the hits on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Thanks to their dad, they knew the Judds didn't really get along all that well.

As the kids aged, they became less interested in the game, but something must have stuck. Scott grew to love alternative music, then hip-hop. Caroline loved anything that could be sung. Thanks to evolving Internet platforms, they learned to search for lyrics and bands and videos. Music played in the kitchen and the garage and the bathroom; it blasted outside as the kids jumped on the trampoline.

And now, the music they're making is their own. Scott writes for and raps with his own group. Caroline, coming off years of choruses and show choirs, is studying music education in college, and in about a year and a half, she'll be shaping young minds with the songs she loves.

The best part? A few weeks ago, Scott, needing a vocal boost for his band, asked Caroline to sing along. She's performed with the band twice now, with more dates to come. Making it big is Scott's dream, and that just might happen. But the best part, for me, is that once again, as in their Lion King days, they're harmonizing together.

And they're teaching me. Scott gives me CDs of his music, and Caroline tells me about new Broadway composers I might like. And just today, I was able to impress my son with the fact that not only do I know what Jurassic 5 was, but I know the names of at least three of its members. (My favorite? A guy named -- seriously -- Chali 2na.)

I can't take credit for my kids' musical talent; on their dad's side, Scott and Caroline come from a line of Southern-gospel singers who recorded records and toured the country. But I pat myself on the back when they instantly recognize Elton John on piano or Clapton on guitar.

As a parent, I was never short on ideas and enthusiasm, and I wanted -- as all parents do -- for the things that interested me to interest my kids. So they hooked rugs, collected rocks and buttons, and made spider webs out of tape (don't ask).

I think they would agree it's probably best that of all those things, it was the music that stuck.