The Suburban Dictionary

Entry #2:  Jaunt

Old meaning: (noun) – a short journey or excursion for pleasure

“We took a lovely jaunt into the countryside today.”

New meaning: (noun) – a generic substitute for any object or thing

“I didn’t feel like doing the Science jaunt last week, cause like…who has time for that?”

The word jaunt, which used to conjure images of a leisurely stroll through the woods or a car ride along scenic byways, is now one of those wild card words which can mean literally anything.  Think “stuff,” “thing,” “junk” or even “jazz,” as in “all that jazz.”  Congratulations, jaunt.  You now mean everything.  Or nothing.  I guess it depends on your perspective…and all that jaunt.

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It’s been nearly three decades since I graduated from high school, but October still means homecoming to me.  That’s because it’s the month of my annual get-together with my high school girlfriends.  The ten of us live all over the country, but once a year we have a standing appointment for a ladies-only weekend of relaxing and catching up.

Just because we leave the husbands and kids behind doesn’t mean they aren’t on our minds.  In fact, many of us have teenagers of our own now, which leads to plenty of conversations about how much high school has changed in the past 30 years.

For example, two years ago, we were in Charleston, South Carolina, reminiscing about the good old days of the 1980’s when a text from my daughter abruptly brought us back to the strange new ways of the 2010’s.  Her homecoming was just around the corner, which included all the things you might expect – a pep rally, football game and formal dance – along with something rather unexpected: a letter from the principal regarding “…a major challenge facing high school administrators across the country.”

Can you guess what the major challenge could be?  It’s not drinking.  It’s not drugs.  It’s not even cyberbullying.  When it comes to homecoming, the biggest issue these days is…inappropriate dancing.  Yep, you read that correctly.  Inappropriate dancing.  And in case there was any misunderstanding, the letter went on to describe the problem in excruciating detail.  There were half a dozen words in quotation marks in the first paragraph alone, including “twerking,” “freaking” and “grinding.”  Not only that, but students and parents were also required to sign a dance contract indicating that they understood there would be “no straddling legs with partner” and “no multiple student freak dancing” allowed.

Whaaat?!?  My friends and I shared a moment of stunned silence…followed by at least half an hour of uncontrolled hysterical laughter.  Don’t judge.  I think we might have temporarily regressed to our teenage selves.  Or maybe we just became giddy at the thought of only worrying about dancing, instead of all the other things we parents usually worry about.

You’d think that technology would have made worry obsolete by now.  After all, we have the ability to monitor our kids’ locations, grades, online activity and communication.  But sometimes it feels like all that information only brings us more anxiety.  Without exactly intending to, we’ve given ourselves a front row seat for each and every GPA fluctuation, friend group drama and dubious Instagram post, and we just can’t help but get involved.

You see why we need the occasional weekend away, right?

Our parents found out how we were doing in school when report cards came home.  Once in a while, they caught part of a telephone conversation (despite our efforts to stretch that kitchen phone cord around the corner and all the way down the hall!)  And on Saturday nights, they waved goodbye and reminded us to be home by curfew with no way of knowing where we were going or what we were doing.  How did they do it?

One of my friends shrugged and said, “My parents knew all of you and knew all of your parents and they trusted us, so they never worried about me.”

With no high-tech ways to ensure our safety, our parents simply counted on us to look out for each other.  And you what?  We did.  And we’re still at it.  Through the years, we’ve congratulated each other on graduations and promotions.  We’ve celebrated weddings and babies.  And we’ve been there when serious illnesses have threatened, when marriages have ended and when parents have passed on.

High school will always be full of major challenges, just like the rest of life.  But something tells me that with the support of good friends, our kids will be more than ready to face whatever dangers lurk online, on the street or even – God forbid – on the dance floor.

Love you ladies and hope to see you next year!

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The Suburban Dictionary

A few years ago, the word “swag” had a bit of a moment.  My daughters were in middle school at the time and I remember hearing them say it over and over again.  The funny thing was that their understanding of the word was completely different from mine.  As far as I knew, “I got swag” meant “I picked up a bunch of free stuff at a conference.”  To my daughters, “I got swag” meant “I’m super cool.”  Many of our conversations ended in, “Huh?”

Luckily, no one says swag anymore, but I have a feeling there are still plenty of family interactions that are lost in translation every day.  That’s why I’m introducing the Suburban Dictionary.  It’s nothing like the Urban Dictionary – we parents out here in the provinces could never hope to be that hip!  It’s just a friendly guide to help moms and dads understand what the heck their kids are saying.  Or at least encourage everyone to mellow off a little bit.  Here goes…

Entry #1:  Stunt

Old meaning: (noun) – a feat showing unusual skill, strength or daring

“What kind of stunt will Evel Knievel perform on ABC’s Wide World of Sports this weekend?”

New meaning: (verb) – to show off or flaunt; try to make an impression.

“I’m boutta stunt on those freshmen with my new jacket!”

The freshmen in question are not in danger of an upperclassman leaping over their heads on a motorcycle.  They’re merely about to have their minds blown by a new style of outerwear.  Somehow, the new “stunt” manages to retain all the awe and wonderment of the old “stunt” with absolutely none of the skill or daring.  All the gain, none of the pain?  These kids are really bringing me over, man.

Got an idea for the Suburban Dictionary?  Send it my way!

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Welcome to the Dark (Leafy Green) Side

untitled-design-24It’s January, the most virtuous month of the year.  The rampant excess of the holiday season has given way to a universal desire for a fresh start.  Everywhere you look, people are flocking to gyms, overhauling diets and cleaning out closets.  Sales of alcohol?  Down.  Sales of organizing bins and self-help books?  Up.  Way up.  We’re all on a mission to establish healthy habits that we hope will stick with us throughout the year ahead.

But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Last January, in the conscientious spirit of the season, I decided to make a kale salad to lighten up a Super Bowl menu that was feeling weighed down by nachos and hot wings.  This was not just any kale salad, mind you.  The recipe came from one of my favorite websites,, and included kale, thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts, toasted walnuts and Parmesan cheese in a garlicky lemon-Dijon vinaigrette.

It did not disappoint.  The bold concoction was bright, crunchy and bursting with vitality, like a Caesar salad set free from its glutinous dressing and bulky croutons.  I went back for seconds, and then thirds.  I tried to count how many superfoods it contained, but lost track after seven.  This exhilarating creation was like a new year’s resolution in a bowl, and I was diving right in.

My family’s reaction was slightly less enthusiastic – they wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole – so I stored the leftovers in the refrigerator.  This is normally a death sentence for a dressed salad, but I couldn’t bear to part with it.  You can imagine my surprise the next day when the full might of these power greens was revealed.  The strong, sturdy leaves of the kale and Brussels sprouts weren’t soggy at all!  The salad was just as fresh and crisp the next day.  And even the day after that.  And then suddenly, it was gone.

And I missed it.

During the week that followed, I began to experience feelings for the kale salad that I had previously only associated with candy corn.  The tingling of taste buds.  The inability to focus on other foods.  The aimless wandering around the places where we used to meet – the fridge, the counter, the kitchen table.  Wait a minute.  Why was I denying this craving?  This was no guilty pleasure – this salad was actually good for me.  I should be eating as much of it as possible!

And that’s pretty much what I’ve done over the past year.  With very few exceptions, I’ve made half a recipe of kale salad every week.  Kept chilled in a salad spinner, it retains its invigorating snap and gets me through most of my weekday lunches. Well, until recently.  You see, there’s a dark side to these leafy greens.  As with any addictive substance, users gradually require more and more to achieve the same high.  So at this point, it’s not unusual to find me tackling a heaping mound of kale salad on a dinner-size plate.

First-timers should also note that digesting this much fiber can be…how can I put this delicately?…challenging.  This is not, I repeat NOT, a gateway salad.  This is the hard stuff.  If your diet does not already include a lot of raw greens, you’ll need to increase your tolerance slowly.  Start with iceberg or possibly romaine and work your way up to spinach or Swiss chard before even attempting the kale and Brussels sprouts.

I’m well aware that if we were talking about anything other than kale salad, I would clearly need an intervention by now.  Yes, I eat it alone.  Yes, I find myself checking the clock to see if it’s lunchtime yet.  But at least it hasn’t affected my relationships (as long as I don’t force my family to eat it.)  And I’m sure I could quit anytime I want…

Oops, it’s lunchtime.  I have to go.

Before I do, I want to wish you a happy, healthy 2017!


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The Heart of a Home

Heart-Shaped-Wreath-on-front-doorApril in Virginia means daffodils, dogwoods and Historic Garden Week.  Each year, several hundred of the most impressive homes and gardens around the state are open for public tours, thanks to the efforts of the Garden Club of Virginia.  The event has become an annual Girls’ Day Out for my mom and me, and this year we joined the circuit in historic Fredericksburg.

Our tour was billed as “a walk from the 18th century to the 21st century” and it did not disappoint.  Among the featured attractions were a grand manor built in the 1780’s by a former Virginia governor, an 1820’s farmhouse once occupied by the Union Army, and a lovely Victorian ingeniously updated for a young family.  Each property demonstrated meticulous attention to historical detail, and we were truly awed by the intricate woodwork, beautiful heart-pine floors and spectacular gardens.

Later, when I reflected on all that we had seen, I realized that the most memorable aspects of each home were not architectural, but personal:  the affectionate portraits that one artist homeowner had painted of her children; the garage that had been transformed into a luxurious guesthouse for the owner’s mother; the lacrosse goals standing ready at the base of a gorgeously terraced lawn; the striking floral display in the school colors of a family’s soon-to-be-graduating senior.  I was reminded that the heart of a home is not the materials from which it is built, but the people who inhabit it.

It’s a notion that can be hard to keep in mind these days, with highly-addictive house porn available 24/7 on HGTV.  If your family is anything like ours, you’ve probably watched your fair share of shows like Fixer Upper, Property Brothers and Love It or List It, and you know how easy it is to get carried away with stainless steel backsplashes, custom built-ins and something called shiplap.  It’s aspirational viewing at its best – luring us in with warm earth tones and lots of natural light, inviting us to get comfortable in open concept floor plans with plenty of space for entertaining, and convincing us that we’re just one water feature away from the home of our dreams.

Once in a while, HGTV inspires a real-life project, and we’ve managed to complete a few of those in the 11 years we’ve lived in our home.  Looking around, I’m sometimes astonished at what a big difference all those little updates have made.  But even more noticeable than, say, new hardwood floors are the signs of how much our family has grown and changed during those years.  The plastic playhouse in our backyard was long ago replaced by a soccer goal.  My son’s toddler basketball hoop has gradually transformed into regulation size, as has his toy drum set.  A foosball table now stands where a train table used to be.  And there’s nary a safety gate, highchair or crib in sight.

Those hardwood floors?  Well, they aren’t half as treasured as the memory of my husband installing them himself after his retirement from the Army.  Our kitchen countertops aren’t nearly as precious as the innumerable family meals that have been prepared on them.  And our freshly-paved driveway is nowhere near as stunning as the fact that my daughter is now old enough to park a car on it.  Yikes.

Well-built older homes are often described as having “good bones.”  It’s an apt expression, since a sturdy foundation, frame and roof are as essential to a house as a skeleton is to a body.  But it’s not the reclaimed wood beams or the textured plaster walls or even – dare I say – the rustic charm of shiplap that really brings a house to life.  It’s the people within it – the true heart of a home.

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You Are What You Click

unnamedOne of the downsides of social media is that it tends to make other people’s lives look a LOT more interesting than our own.  Our feeds are flooded with posts about exotic vacations, amazing kids and stunning home renovations.  Never mind that these are probably just the high points of otherwise ordinary lives – when it comes to online communication, we all like to put our best foot forward.

Ironically, our friends and followers aren’t paying half as much attention to our online activity as the dot-coms are.  While we’re hustling to make a good impression on social media, these guys are hard at work constructing their own profiles of us, based on the websites we visit and the things we buy.  Usually, this results in targeted ads and communications that reinforce our self-perceptions.  But once in a while, something goes wrong.  And when it does?  Well, buckle up, because you and your ego are in for a bumpy ride.

Case in Point:  On a recent morning, I checked e-mail and came across the following notification from Pinterest…

We thought you might like these Pins and boards about Frugal Living and Spinach

Frugal Living?

And Spinach?


Is it me or is that the bleakest subject line you’ve ever seen?  To be fair, I do enjoy spinach and it probably wouldn’t kill me to live a little more frugally, but that’s pretty dismal for a sentence that’s supposed to grab my attention and make me want to open the e-mail.  Was my life really so dull that Pinterest thought Frugal Living and Spinach would be just the hook to reel me in?  I had apparently hit a new low without even realizing it.

I first joined Pinterest a few years ago when we decided to renovate our kids’ bathroom, thinking that a secret board would be a convenient place to collect ideas for paint, tile and lighting.  Despite my initial enthusiasm, it did not turn out to be the most productive partnership.  I only managed to Pin one fabric sample, which I didn’t even end up using.

When you establish a new account on Pinterest, you’re encouraged to follow a few boards, so I decided to follow one called “Quotes.”  My daughters then took over the registration process and signed up to follow “Sky,” which features dramatic photos of clouds and rainbows; “Sunrises Sunset’s and Moon Light’s,” a celebration of atmospheric photography (and apostrophes, evidently); and “Creative face and hair artwork.”

Pinterest notifies you whenever there are updates to the boards you follow, and it also lets you know about related Pins on other boards.  It’s even able to suggest topics based on your activity on partner websites – basically, any website or app with a Pin It button.  This all makes perfect sense, in theory.  But when I looked back at my Pinterest notifications, it appeared that something had gone seriously awry.  The subject lines ranged from merely curious to truly bizarre, as though Pinterest had let some kind of random topic-generating bot with H.A.L.-like determination loose on the Internet.

We found some Quiches and Funny People Pins for you!

Teas, Psychics and other topics you might love

Computers, Physical Activities and other topics picked for you

I cannot explain the origin of any of these topics, except possibly Quiches.  The longer I was absent from Pinterest, the more frequent and outlandish the suggestions became.

Dentistry, Spring and other topics picked for you

We found some Fish Recipes and Playroom Pins and boards for you!

Horses, Schools and other topics picked for you

Dentistry?  Really?  It was like Pinterest had suddenly turned into a jilted boyfriend, using increasingly desperate measures to get my attention and win me back.

We found new Entrepreneur and Whole Brain Teaching Pins and boards for you!

Simple, Shorts and other topics picked for you

We found some Potty Training and Macaroni Pins and boards for you!

What does Whole Brain Teaching mean?  Is that even a thing?  Finally, my disgruntled ex gave up and resorted to shaming me with Frugal Living and Spinach, as if to say, “Fine, be that way.  You were just a cheapskate with green stuff stuck between your teeth anyway.”

Ouch.  That hurts, Pinterest.  Listen, I’m sorry it didn’t work out between us, but I promise it wasn’t you.   It was me.  You know I have commitment issues when it comes to home improvement projects.  At least we’ll always have our memories of Sunset’s and Moon Light’s.

The good news is that Pinterest and I are still friends, even though we’ve both moved on. However, our affair made me realize that we can’t control what others think of us – at least not without a really gifted social media profile consultant – and we certainly shouldn’t let others shake our faith in ourselves.  I think legendary basketball coach John Wooden said it best, according to the Quotes board.  “Worry about your character, not your reputation.  Your character is who you are, and your reputation is who people think you are.”

You know, that’s good stuff.  Maybe I should give Pinterest another chance.

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Odd Couples

scaliaginsburgThere was certainly no shortage of confusion following the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  He was found in bed at a remote hunting resort in Texas and, according to news reports, had declined a security detail, so no U.S. marshals were present.  Nor were any justices of the peace nearby.  After several chaotic hours, officials finally located a county judge, who pronounced Scalia dead of natural causes over the telephone, without ever seeing the body.  No autopsy was conducted.

It was the kind of mysterious scenario that seemed tailor-made for conspiracy theories, and even a month later, many unanswered questions remain.  But despite the unusual circumstances of his death, there was one aspect of Scalia’s life that might be even more curious – his unlikely friendship with fellow justice and ideological opposite Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Scalia and Ginsburg first met as U.S. appeals court judges before their respective appointments to the Supreme Court in 1986 and 1993.  Although their legal philosophies were diametrically opposed – he an originalist and she a proponent of a living Constitution – they somehow managed to sustain a decades-long friendship based on mutual admiration and a shared passion for the arts.  According to a recent Washington Post article, Scalia and his wife regularly joined Ginsburg and her husband for dinners and vacations, and the two couples celebrated many New Year’s Eves together.

Their friendship flourished, even as Scalia and Ginsburg fervently disagreed on many of the cases that came before the Court.  Issues like abortion, healthcare reform, same-sex marriage, campaign finance and affirmative action divided the country, but never caused a personal rift between the two justices.  Perhaps they recognized that their devotion to the Constitution was equally strong, even though they understood it somewhat differently.

It’s a way of thinking that seems lamentably rare these days.  The current election cycle is among the most contentious in recent memory, with smears outshining substance and derision undermining discourse.  This week’s nomination of Scalia’s potential successor unleashed a fresh wave of partisan rancor in a Congress already hobbled by discord.  One wonders: must dissent and dislike inevitably go hand in hand?

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”  Often attributed to Harry Truman, this quip suggests that friendship and politics don’t mix.  Nevertheless, there have been quite a few odd couples throughout history whose unexpectedly close relationships could rival even that of Scalia and Ginsburg.

Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were staunch friends despite their political differences until a falling-out in 1801 when Jefferson became president.  They finally reconciled in 1811 and enjoyed 15 years of enthusiastic correspondence until their deaths on July 4, 1826.

President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill also had a strong bond, which included regular lunches in addition to tough policy negotiations.  “There was a respect for each other and a respect for institutions,” said MSNBC “Hardball” host and former O’Neill aide Chris Matthews in a 2013 Politico interview. Matthews went on to chronicle the improbable relationship between the two leaders in his book “Tip and the Gipper: When Washington Worked.”

Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but forged a devoted friendship as well as a powerful legislative partnership.  “We fought each other like tooth and tongue but afterwards, we’d put our arms around each other and laugh about it,” Hatch said in an interview on National Public Radio after Kennedy’s death in 2009.

Political consultants Mary Matalin and James Carville took it a step further with a high-profile romance during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Matalin was deputy campaign chief for George H.W. Bush and Carville was lead strategist for Bill Clinton.  After surviving the election year crucible, they married and have been happily offering conflicting views on talk shows ever since.

There’s something uniquely inspiring about individuals who can set aside their differences for the sake of a higher goal, whether it be lifelong friendship, true love or the good of the nation.  Indeed, Scalia and Ginsburg’s extraordinary rapport inspired Derrick Wang to compose an opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which premiered last summer.  In Ginsburg’s published reaction to Scalia’s death, she recalled a line from a duet near the end of the production:  “We are different, we are one.”

It’s an idea we would all do well to remember.

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Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

bigmagicBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

Q.  What is creativity?

A.  The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

When people hear that I’m a blogger, they often ask how I come up with ideas for my posts.  That’s when I admit that finding ideas is the easy part.  The hard part is finding the time – and the self-discipline – to develop those ideas into something worthwhile.  Not very illuminating, I know, but I understand why they ask.  I too am fascinated by the ways that writers, musicians and artists find inspiration, which is why I was so eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Well, there’s also the fact that I’ve had a bit of a girl crush on Gilbert ever since Eat, Pray, Love.  Alas, my dream of becoming friends with her will probably never come true, but at least I’ve had a chance to learn more about her intriguing philosophy on ideas, inspiration and living the creative life.

Big Magic centers on Gilbert’s beguiling premise that ideas are independent life forms, each with its own consciousness and will.  “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas.  Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form,” she explains.

According to Gilbert, the magic of creativity begins when an idea interacts with a human being.  “It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual,” she says.  “Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners…When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit.”

This is what you might call a flash of inspiration.  An “Aha!” moment.  Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to have had one.  If so, you know that what happens next is up to you.  You can ignore the idea or you can welcome it in.  That’s the aforementioned easy part.  But once you let an idea in, you must work wholeheartedly to bring it into being or it will move on to a more willing host, Gilbert says.  That, as you may have guessed, is the hard part.

Creativity involves courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust, “and those elements are universally accessible,” Gilbert explains.  “Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.”  Gilbert is truly at her best as our guide in this brave new world.  Her breezy, down-to-earth style makes Big Magic feel more like a good chat with a knowledgeable pal rather than a highly-structured self-help book, and her decades of writing experience lend credibility to her point of view, even when it seems unconventional.  She is also emphatic about the importance of committed, diligent work when it comes to creativity.

Gilbert’s section on courage reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s inspiration for The Secret Life of Bees, one of my all-time favorite books.  When Kidd began to contemplate writing a novel after years of authoring nonfiction, she recalled the bees that lived in the wall of her childhood home.  The image of a young girl lying awake at night with bees buzzing around her room stayed with Kidd as she charted the course of the story and worked through her doubts about attempting a new literary form.

The concept of trust brought to mind songwriter and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson.  During an interview, Wilson, who has co-written Grammy-winning songs for Adele and the Dixie Chicks in addition to his own material, was asked if he was ever afraid of running out of ideas or tempted to hold back an idea for himself.  He responded, “My philosophy – and I do this wholeheartedly – is to use the great idea right now and finish it, because I feel it’s a way to tell your own mind, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to have another good one.  It’s going to be cool.’”

As for enchantment, there’s no better example than 2015 MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient Lin-Manuel Miranda.  The creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton had this to say when asked about his next project:  “I’m flirting with a lot of ideas,” for future shows, he said, “but I don’t know that I’m in a relationship with one.”

Now, most of us will never become bestselling authors or Grammy winners or MacArthur fellows (or even friends with Elizabeth Gilbert), but there is still much to be gained by living a life driven by curiosity, courage and creativity, and it all starts with that flash of inspiration.

As Gilbert says, “…be ready.  Keep your eyes open.  Listen.  Follow your curiosity.  Ask questions.  Sniff around.  Remain open.  Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day.  Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention.”

“Let them know you’re available.”

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What Moms Do

geicomomcropHave you seen the latest “It’s What You Do” commercial from Geico?  The beginning looks like something out of a James Bond movie, with a gang of villains chasing a handsome agent through an industrial landscape.  Just as the leading man realizes that he’s trapped on the roof of a building, his cell phone rings.  “Where are you?” he shouts, clearly expecting some backup.  Instead, you hear, “Well, the squirrels are back in the attic.”  Confused, the agent says, “Mom?” and the scene cuts abruptly to a sunny living room, where an older woman is flipping through a magazine and complaining that “Dad won’t call the exterminator.”  Then comes the voice-over…

“If you’re a mom, you call at the worst time.  It’s what you do.  If you want to save 15 percent or more on car insurance, you switch to Geico.  It’s what you do.”

Yep, you heard that right.  Out of ALL the things that moms do, Geico chose to highlight calling at the worst time for a national ad campaign.  Calling at the worst time?!?  Was that really the best you could do, Geico?

Just wait until your father gets home.

“It’s What You Do” has spawned a memorable assortment of absurdly funny commercials since its launch in 2014.  “If You’re a Golf Commentator, You Whisper,” even when a kraken emerges from a water hazard.  “If You’re the Band Europe, You Love a Final Countdown,” even if it’s just the timer on the office microwave.  “If You’re Salt-n-Pepa, You Tell People to Push It,” whether they’re trying to open a door, practice Lamaze, or mow the lawn.  And “If You’re In a Horror Movie, You Make Bad Choices,” like hiding behind the chainsaws in the barn.

If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?

Speaking of bad choices, I can’t help thinking about all the different ways Geico could have gone with “If You’re a Mom.”  How about “If you’re a mom, you make your kids eat vegetables.”  Or “If you’re a mom, you worry that your kids are cold.”  Or even “If you’re a mom, you lick your thumb and use it to rub dirt off your kid’s face.”  Besides having obvious comedic potential, these offer the added benefit of being reasonably accurate and not entirely disrespectful.

If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

So where did it all go wrong?  I can only conclude that the initial concept meeting for this ad was hijacked by an insider with mommy issues.  Imagine: The creative director says, “Let’s brainstorm!  When I say ‘mom,’ you say the first thing that comes to your mind.  Ready?  MOM!”  Then various team members call out things like “Bakes cookies!” “Gives hugs!” and “Drives carpools!” until they’re shouted down by the cynical copywriter from the dysfunctional family.  “CALLS AT THE WORST TIME!”

Don’t use that tone with me, mister.

I’d like to point out that moms don’t have any kind of monopoly on poorly-timed phone calls.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that moms find themselves on the receiving end of inopportune calls more often than not.  Take the secret agent in this ad.  If he’s anything like my kids, he’s been calling his mom at the most inconvenient times since the day he was born.  He’s undoubtedly called out from his crib just as his mom drifted off to sleep.  He’s probably called from the school nurse’s office just as his mom stepped into an important meeting.  He’s almost certainly called to complain about his sister while his mom and dad were out on a rare date night.  He may have even called from a sleepover party to say that he was ready to come home.  At 3 a.m.

Don’t make me come over there.

If you have a mom, you’ve done this too.  We all have.  I once called my mom when a friend’s car broke down on a college road trip, and she had to drive over an hour to rescue us.  I called my mom in total postpartum meltdown the night we brought our first baby home, and she immediately threw a few things in a suitcase and headed over.  A few years back, I called my mom to complain that I had no time to decorate for Christmas, and she was at my door within hours toting bags of garland and ribbon.

Now THAT’S what moms do.

If you’re a mom, you drop everything, you show up and you make it happen.  It’s what you do.  And it’s something Geico should keep in mind.  Why?  Because if you’re a mom, you might need to buy car insurance one day.  But even more importantly…

Because I said so.

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Go Set a Watchman

gosetawatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)

Rarely has a book been as highly anticipated as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  The discovery of a long-lost manuscript by the author of the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird – and the controversy surrounding its publication – made for record-setting preorder sales and non-stop buzz.  But after Watchman’s July release, the hubbub dwindled to a murmur, as though readers couldn’t quite figure out what to make of it.

“If you did not want much, there was plenty.”

That was how Lee described the town of Maycomb, Alabama in the first chapter of Watchman, but her words could apply equally well to the book itself – which is not to say that there is not much to be gained in its pages.  On the contrary, if readers could scale back their Mockingbird-sized expectations, they would find that Watchman offers plenty to discover and contemplate, both about the fictional Jean Louise Finch and the real-life Harper Lee.

According to publisher HarperCollins, Watchman was actually the forerunner of Mockingbird – the original draft that Lee submitted to her editor in the mid-1950’s.  In it, a grown-up Scout Finch, now known as Jean Louise, travels from New York to Maycomb for a visit.  Readers will recognize many familiar faces, including Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack.  The story unfolds over a few brief days, as Jean Louise is forced to reexamine deeply-held feelings about her family and her Southern heritage, in light of desegregation and the civil rights movement.

The title of the novel comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, in which the prophet is told to send a watchman to observe an impending attack on the city of Babylon.  Lee carries the concept through the book on two levels:  Jean Louise is the watchman sent to observe the town of Maycomb, as it braces for significant social change, and she is also the watchman of her own conscience, as she struggles to understand her loyalties and convictions.

This personal conflict seemed to garner the most attention after Watchman’s publication.  Readers were every bit as shocked as Jean Louise to discover that Atticus is racist.  Perhaps this shouldn’t have been such a big surprise, as he was born and raised in the Jim Crow South.  But until now, he was only seen through Scout’s worshipful eyes, an idealized man and father.

“…a man who has lived by truth – and you have believed in what he has lived – he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing,” Jean Louise laments, after Atticus falls from his pedestal.

This realization is the beginning of Jean Louise’s long-overdue coming of age.  She must accept that Atticus is merely human and discover her own identity.  A worthy goal, to be sure, but the lengthy inner monologues and contentious interactions that Lee uses to achieve it are tough going for readers.  Perhaps that’s why Lee’s editor requested a rewrite focusing on Jean Louise’s childhood memories from the 1930’s.

Many of these memories are drawn from Lee’s own childhood in Alabama as a tomboy with a highly respected attorney father.  I’d like to think that Watchman also provides more clues about the reclusive author as an adult.  Like Jean Louise, Lee moved to New York as a young woman, but always maintained close ties with family and friends in Alabama.  Perhaps the inner struggle depicted in Watchman mirrors Lee’s own efforts to make sense of her feelings as she traveled between South and North, between childhood and adulthood, and between past and present.

As Jean Louise tells Henry, “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world.  I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world.  It’s silly.  I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”  

Watchman gives us a sense of learning the “rest of the story” of Mockingbird, and I have to wonder if one of the reasons that Lee never wrote a follow-on book was because she foresaw the outcry that would result.  Her characters had become cultural icons and she may have felt constrained by a responsibility to preserve their personas.

“Hell is eternal apartness.  What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?”  Jean Louise asks, realizing that the impossibly virtuous characters of her childhood now exist only in her memories.

I have a feeling that Mockingbird fans are asking the same thing right about now.  Watchman certainly wasn’t what anyone expected, but I think it’s still a gem.  It’s unrefined and a little rough around the edges, but still glimmers with the perceptive eye, keen ear, unbridled curiosity and prodigious intellect that made To Kill a Mockingbird shine.

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