Sunday, October 31, 2010

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Growing up, I never attached any special significance to the so-called holiday season.

We didn't celebrate Christmas, and Hanukkah was just another in a string of Jewish holidays that was festive, but not really noteworthy. We would light our menorah, eat our latkes, and get chocolate gelt. A crisp dollar bill or two might arrive in an envelope postmarked Miami Beach. But there was no "official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle." No nights rendered sleepless with anticipation. The Christmas season was mostly special because we got off from school.

The most special time of my year was always...this one. It was the first two weeks of November that I looked forward to. They were positively electric.

Why? Because of Halloween. God, how I loved Halloween. I loved dressing up. I loved trick or treating. I loved giving out candy. I loved eating candy, which was otherwise essentially verboten. I still maintain that the smell of a trick or treat bag -- not the smell of any one particular candy, mind you, but the sweet smell of the mingled wrappers -- is one of the best aromas in the universe. Yankee Candle needs to get on that one. (And noodle kugel, while they're at it.)

But it didn't stop there. November 1st is my brother Eric's birthday. So there would be more celebration. And a Pepperidge Farm layer cake, the Mendelsohn family standard. There's a photo of one of Eric's parties where he's blowing out the candles at the kitchen table and you can see all of our trick or treat bags hanging from the doorknob behind him. Now that I'm a parent, I cringe for my mother, wondering how she managed the collective insanity of five small children completely hopped up on sugar.

November 7th is my brother Andrew's birthday. More celebration. More cake. (You're feeling the frenzy by this point, no?)

And then came the jewel in the crown of my year: November 11th. Why, it's Veterans' Day, for God's sake! Is there any holiday that has a bigger hold on little girls' imaginations?

Just kidding.

I mean, it is Veteran's Day. But it's also my birthday.

And I'm a firm believer that the world can be neatly divided into people who don't make a big deal about their birthdays, and people who do. Count me firmly in the latter group. I take after my friend Maggie, who believes the celebration of one's birthday should extend to the entire month of one's birth. Hear, hear.

I always loved being the birthday girl, having my moment in the sun. Waking to find the kitchen festooned with decorations and presents. Having the day off from school. (That was for the veterans, not me, of course, but it only added to the mystique.) Getting to choose my favorite dinner. And of course, the cake. I've never outgrown my passionate love of birthday cake, though I've long since moved on from Pepperidge Farm. I find it virtually impossible to attend a child's birthday party and pass up a piece of cake -- the more icing, the better. (Read about last year's birthday cake debacle here.)

Even now, the crackle of burnished leaves underfoot and the smell of the air at this time of year makes me incredibly wistful and nostalgic, for a time when Halloween signaled the start of all the magic. You can have all your chestnuts roasting on an open fire and your sleigh bells jingling. Just save a Kit Kat and some birthday cake for me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sugar and Spice

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s:  Girls studying tegether.  (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

I distinctly remember the moment in high school when I realized that every single one of my mother's close friends was a teacher.

Well, to be more precise, it wasn't the moment I realized it, but the moment I realized what it meant.

My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and the fact that virtually all of the adult women I knew were teachers as well -- including every single member of the tight-knit crew with whom my mother had gone to New York's Hunter College -- was just one of those facts that had never merited any special consideration before. It was just something about my world that I had absorbed, like the fact that we were Jewish, or that we lived in the suburbs.

But one day the implications of it finally dawned on me: it wasn't an accident or a coincidence that all of those women were teachers. They all became teachers because there just weren't very many options for women graduating from college in 1952. (Mom also knew a rogue nurse or two, to be fair.)

Perhaps that's why I had always harbored a romantic fascination with the one friend of my mother's who had refused to conform. Sue Slade marched to the beat of her own very distinctive drummer: an honest-to-goodness Bohemian, she became a theater casting agent and even once worked as a secretary for Marlon Brando. Sue eventually wrote a play called Ready When You Are, C.B., which ran for 80 performances on Broadway, directed by theater luminary Joshua Logan. It's still performed in schools and community theater from time to time. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971, the year she turned 40. I never got to know her.

By the time I graduated from college almost 40 years after my mother and her crew, the idea that women could only be teachers or nurses seemed to me like a quaint relic, something akin to Victrolas and corsets. It had been drummed into my head throughout my childhood (see: Title IX, Free To Be You and Me) that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be and the fact that I was a girl wouldn't limit me in any way.

I laughed when my first editor after college, after watching me turn around a transcription project at lightning speed, warned me never to let anyone know how fast I could type. It seemed charmingly anachronistic. He was mostly kidding, right? Because no one really thought that way any more, did they?

I'm now the mother of two little boys who have female doctors and female T-ball teammates and a female Senator. Maybe I haven't been watching the messages we're sending little girls these days as vigilantly as I could, but I naively assumed that we were still mostly on the right path. (I do take credit for sending a letter to Nickelodeon four years ago complaining about their sexist marketing of Dora. I loved that my then two-year-old son was a fan of a show with a strong female lead character like Dora. Why did they only make Dora merchandise suitable for little girls? Did they really need to spin off Diego just because he was a boy?)

Which is why I was so disappointed when I opened a recent Land's End catalog and saw this:

See, it turns out that boys and girls "aren't built the same." Girls' coats apparently need to be "pretty & playful" while boys' are "rugged & ready." Really? In 2010? It seemed so ludicrous -- so 1952 -- that I find it incredibly hard to imagine the meeting in which this copy was approved. Did someone think it was an episode of Mad Men, maybe?

Has no one at Land's End heard of Brandi Chastain?

PASADENA, CA - JULY 10:  Brandi Chastain #6 of Team USA removes her jersey while celebrating after kicking the winning penalty shot to win the Final match over Team China during the FIFA Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999 in Pasadena, California. Team USA defeated Team China 5-4 in sudden death after two overtimes. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Or Hillary Clinton, a woman who mounted a completely credible bid to be the President of the United States a mere two years ago?

I was irked, but dropped it. An aberration, I decided.

Until last night, surfing around looking for bunk beds for my boys, I came across this:

Sigh. Need I walk through the litany of misconceptions here, starting with the idea that girls "just wanna have style" and need "sweet" bunk bed designs, while their boy counterparts need "manly" bunk beds that are just as "tough and cool" as they are?

For the record, marketers of the world, I'm perfectly ok if my three- and six-year-old sons sleep in "sweet" beds. They are neither particularly tough nor cool, and I'm fine if things remain that way for a while.

But you know who is tough and cool? And rugged and ready? Their seven year old cousin. In fact, like scores of little girls before her, she recently started trekking regularly to the ice rink with big dreams.

You know. To play hockey.

So take that, Land's End and I'm choosing to believe that Alexandra is the kind of little girl we should be raising in 2010, one who won't fit in the ridiculously outdated stereotypes you're still trying to sell her. And you know what? I bet Sue Slade would be proud.