Last July, my sons were jolted into mild uproar by the rumor that I had packed — simply packed, mind you — a swimsuit for our vacation at the beach. Since baby number three, me in a bathing suit’s been much like the ivory-billed woodpecker: someone’s always claiming to have seen it, but the reports remain unconfirmed and uncorroborated. Or they unravel as mere exaggerated speculation. Did my cheerful mom-worthy tunic in fact hide a demure black full-coverage tank suit, with strategic waist-level shirring? That’s just a hypothesis, boys.
But out there on the internet, a tireless algorithm nurtures a parallel vision of me and my swimsuit mojo. It wants me to know I belong in a different league. A braver, prouder, more ambitious league. And it’s finally sent me a sign.
Inspired? You bet I am. I’d hate to let Big Data down.
Three sons. One van. One race to school. How hard could it be?
Yet we just barely make it out of the gate.
What I’ve Done So Far This Summer:
Mother’s Day is coming. And the blitz is on.
My inbox is crammed with gift guides. These high-end hawkers must know what they’re talking about. Right? All that big-data firepower aimed at just one demographic, for just one Sunday in May? Surely we can learn something deeply insightful here about women and desire.
So what do mothers want?
1. We want pink purses. Large or small. Shell or fuchsia. We want them to cost at least $1500, though if someone wants to spend up to $3000 and more, we’ll just have to accept that extra tribute to our mothering excellence.
2. We want heavy gold bracelets that look like bridle bits. Here too, there’s room for variation, and our donors can use their own judgment, if they dare. Gucci recommends one for $7600. True, that’s a lot of filial love, but then Gucci’s proposed pink purse only costs $1100. So there’s that.
3. We want candles. This one surprised me. I myself love candles on cakes and dinner tables, and every once in a while I’ll light one in the kitchen if I sautéed onions without the hood fan on. But it turns out the demographic mother can’t get enough candles in scents of, say, tobacco and tiger. There’s even a candle that claims to smell like a particular hipster neighborhood here in Nashville. Yes! A neighborhood scented candle! I just didn’t realize I yearned for that.
4. We want lipstick. Boy, do we want lipstick! Obviously, pink is mandatory. Though I admire the aspirational genius behind “Jungle Queen” lipstick: “one killer accessory.” Say no more.
These aren’t all, of course. There’s also scarves and flowers. Books about flowers. Books about famous women who grew and/or arranged flowers. A cocktail shaker made out of a Mason Jar. Jewelry galore. All completely lovely, and they’d all be unwrapped with joy on the big day.
Still, I offer a modest alternative. How about a Mother’s Day tribute that really captures what’s true about mothering, when you dig deep into it. Not the rosy pink, scrubbed surface we might aim for. But the authentic, grubby grist of real family life? All those days we spend negotiating the gap — sometimes narrow, sometimes cavernous — between the mother we aspire to be, for the family we aspire to have, and the mother we end up being, for the family we actually have.
So this year, I propose we celebrate how ludicrous the whole enterprise of family can be. For this, I recommend the master:
Enjoy. And happy Mother’s Day.
My personal marketing strategy is a disgrace.
I should have known it would come to this. For some time I’ve sensed that the world as imagined by literature majors was steadily giving way to the world as constructed by advertising majors. We can’t help ourselves: the minute that Instagram app installs on our phones, we’re all our own Don Drapers.
Of course, the personal brand divas set a very high bar.
First, I need to re-conceive my entire life as one complete, integrated brand. Nothing is tangential to my core mission, that of promoting myself. And no aspect of my personal brand should be left to chance. I can’t even tell you what brand chaos I’ve brought on myself by not articulating a comprehensive mission statement. Here are two that, really, just say it all:
Second, if I’m going to embrace the personal brand of (1) being a woman who works at all aspects of my life while also (2) living beautifully in an effortless way, then I need to rethink my clothes. Not just for the big outings, when I already know to take that shower and pull something nice from the back of the closet, there behind the neglected Pilates ball. Nope. My personal brand must be tireless. As one guru explains, “It’s the way you leave your house every morning, unaware of who might cross your path that you want to pitch, impress or partner with.” No more assuming I’m actually invisible when racing from carline to grocery. Or that others think I’m just deep-conditioning my hair. Time to straighten up.
And, by the way, don’t believe your own front door protects you from brand failure either, warns entrepreneur.com: “Forget PJs, Dress Your Brand Even at Your Home Office.” By “PJs,” they presumably also mean to ban jeans and the same T-shirt/sweater combo that cling conveniently together when you slough them off at bedtime. Just because they’re still lying next to your toothbrush the next morning doesn’t mean they can be worn again and again beautifully, no matter how effortless that might seem. Beware. Learn from my mistakes.
Finally, I’ve come to accept that my husband and sons carry their own responsibility for advancing my personal marketing strategy. For too long I’ve let the stragglers and slackers in that group tarnish my brand at will. No more. I’m imposing some overdue brand discipline. It’s time for a little team work.
I’ve got a lot to catch up on.
I first posted this last year. But March marks the annual invasion of the bikini catalogs, so it’s a good time to revisit first principles:
This woman gave birth one month ago.
She’s stunning, of course. But for merely mortal mothers, this is not helpful. Instead, I draw inspiration from the great moms of literature. Like these:
Sal’s mother has a real J.Crew-meets-Etsy-Vintage vibe that works for most of us. Note the chic choppy bob and her sheer cheek color, from her afternoon out rescuing Sal from blueberry-drunk bears.
Here, Olivia’s mother wears a day-to-evening sheath, which adds authority to her bedtime negotiations. By day, she’ll out-shine the other moms (“Is she working again?”) on her urban school run and, perhaps, be photographed for a street-style blog. She also knows how to get on with the business of wearing a bathing suit, even when she might rather not. Similar sunglasses by The Row available at Barneys New York and Net-A-Porter.
For dressing up, it’s hard to beat the mother of Iggy Peck, Architect. She’s like Edie Sedgwick married to a banker instead of mooning after Warhol. Love how the haircut complements her look of constant consternation. Now, that’s real mom style.
She also wins the prize for fully committing to date night.
Finally, a word about accessories. One great statement piece can really make an outfit, define your personal style, and lift your spirits. None better than this knockout necklace on Ferdinand’s mom:
Most covetable of all, that smile from knowing she’s “an understanding mother, even though she was a cow.” I vote we all aspire to that.
News Flash: Sheryl Sandberg and Beyonce launch campaign to ban calling little girls “bossy.”
Okay, so I guess I must confess: I call my young boys, repeat BOYS, “bossy” all the time, and not in a good way.
I call them “bossy” when they insist on having their way about (1) what they’re required to eat at dinner; (2) what movie we all watch together; and (3) where they sit in the family van. I call them “bossy” when they demand supreme unilateral power to enforce the rules for Risk (who actually knows how to play that game, anyway?). I call them “bossy” when they try to bulldoze a brother into swapping an esteemed Star Wars guy for a handful of cast-off Legos. They’re “bossy” when they argue with me about lights-out, no matter how few pages to the end of their chapter.
In fact, I call them bossy, in a bad way, whenever they act like their needs and desires matter more than anyone else’s in the room. When they insist that every environment and every other human adapt to suit them, first and foremost, including their paper-thin skins. When they claim to know everything, all the time. When they disregard the effect their conduct has on other people’s feelings, as we all make our way in our shared world.
Yes, being called “bossy” is a bad thing, but that’s because being “bossy” is a bad thing. It’s uncomfortable behavior coming from anyone, woman or man, girl or boy.
In the twenty-five years since I graduated from law school, I’ve had great bosses — truly great, inspiring leaders, teachers, supporters, and friends — who would have been mortified if anyone thought their work behavior was “bossy.” Not because being called that would have intimidated them from taking on the mantle of true leadership, but because they knew true leadership is not about bossing. It’s about compassion, patience, and the habit of thinking about others and not just your own self. It’s about that most endangered human quality, in our self-regarding culture: kindness.
Wouldn’t it be something if we could all lean in to that.
Here in Boomtown, we’re all hepped up.
Last November, Travel and Leisure magazine named us — yes, our own Nashville — as Number 8 in their definitive list of “America’s Best Cities for Hipsters.” We came in only three spots behind New York City (that includes hipster mothership Brooklyn), and we completely smoked poor old Seattle, which dropped to Number 11 from being Number 1 just last year. Ouch.
About 625,000 people live in Nashville today. We’re expecting a million newcomers in the next 25 years.
That’s a lot of artisanal cappuccino.
Still, I treasure any vestige of authentic Nashville. Like last Tuesday’s policeman.
I’d been reading The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. It’s an engrossing study of how human societies — at least those we can somehow observe — have always included an idea of extra-material, even supernatural, forces in their understanding of the natural world and humans’ place in it. Wright argues that humans’ ways of envisioning that extra-material force, our ways of talking about gods or even God, have changed over time to keep up with our advances in science and technology. As our cultures have evolved, so has God. Wright thinks this is a good thing: good for us, good for our idea of God.
I took the book to read while getting my toenails painted. From there straight to a friend’s birthday lunch, the book stayed on my front passenger seat. It was still there when I left lunch and headed home.
Just past a stop sign, the dreaded blue lights.
The policeman was young, trim, and wearing — yes, he really was — mirrored aviator sunglasses. He approached my passenger window and politely asked, in a strong Tennessee accent, whether I agreed I’d rolled through that last stop sign.
It never does to argue. “Yes sir,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
He leaned in and cocked his head. “What’s that book?”
I handed over the Robert Wright and described what it’s about. The officer turned it over, read the back cover, flipped through to the introduction, and read for a minute. He reached it back in.
“I’m reading a book,” he said, ” about inerrancy. Five views on inerrancy”
Now, you probably already know, “inerrancy” is an Evangelical Christian doctrine claiming that the Bible, in its current form, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind. The Bible, dictated by God, does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact, scientific or otherwise. So, really, anything the Bible says happened, happened, and in just the way the Bible says, and has always said. No room for evolution here. Really, not that hipster.
So there we were. Robert Wright, with a God we’ve fashioned ourselves to quell uncertainties about our real world. And the Evangelical Christians, with a God who’s revealed Himself and His creation in the Bible, one truth, once and for all.
We nodded at each other. “That sounds interesting,” I said. “I should learn more about it.”
“Me too,” he pointed at the Wright, back on my van seat. “And I’m not going to give you a ticket.”
One snowy June evening, I took my two older sons to the rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
It was a Wednesday. The Sunday before, we’d traveled from Nashville to a dude ranch two hours’ drive from Jackson Hole. Way out of town, way out of any town, on the muddiest, slickest unpaved road I’d ever driven, past sheer-drop canyons with no guardrails.
By rodeo Wednesday, I and my sons, then 6 and 8, had spent three sleeting days as near-novice riders on horses wrenched from winter grazing only the weekend before. The other kids, all older than mine, had appraised us immediately (two unhappy, too-young children and one delusional mother), and then retreated to their iPods and Hunger Games.
My boys unraveled into whining and bickering. Our one triumph, those first days, was my 6-year-old survived when his horse bolted from the plodding trail line, straight downhill into a very steep ravine, racing back to the barn. Smart horse.
By Wednesday afternoon, even I could see I’d over-fantasized the whole dude-ranch venture. I loved horses, sure. And I’d loved riding before my sons were born. My vision had been pure: the three of us would leave the toddler brother back home in Nashville with the horse-averse Dad, and canter free through western fields with the Tetons rising behind. The three of us, learning cowboy songs around a campfire while our horses nuzzled us gently out of love and respect. Turns out, my boys mostly grieved that the ranch swimming pool was closed for snow. And the teenagers rarely shared the one board game.
So, the rodeo. True, a salvage operation, but still. We fishtailed back into town for the evening show.
One family’s run the Jackson Hole rodeo for more than a century. It takes place in an outdoor ring that would fit inside any small county fair. Two modest stands face off across a dirt arena. A cinderblock snack bar hides under the bleachers. Could it possibly be worth the four hours’ drive?
My sons slumped beside me. Another round of Cokes.
Into the ring charged a horse and rider racing furiously around a course of tall barrels. The horse floated off the ground, nearly horizontal, on the turns. Another set of headlong barrel racers followed them, and then another. More levitating horses.
The gates across the arena opened, and out rode a cowboy on a horse bucking so wildly the man’s head would surely rattle off his spine. The man spiraled out of the saddle, high into the dusty air, and hit the ground hard. Out came another bucking bronco, this one even wilder. Another flying cowboy.
Then out of those gates came a gigantic angry bull, snorting and glaring. You could see his ferocious eyes even from where we sat, clutching our Cokes and Hershey bars. And on the bull’s back, again, was a man in a cowboy hat, hanging onto this unreasonable, terrifying creature while it kicked and spun and pawed a dusty path across the ring. Off flew that cowboy too – in ran the incongruous rescue clowns – and then another cowboy and another crazed bull raged in, then another. And another.
The announcer paused, then roared, “Bareback riding!”
My son turned to me with great joy. “Now they’re going to ride the bears?”
The fantasies I chase elude me, always. But there I had my young son, whose imagination was so free, so unbound by habits of ordinary impossibility, so transported by the exotic wonders he’d just seen with his own eyes, he was perfectly prepared to believe the next marvel out of the gate across the ring would be a cowboy riding a grizzly.
What could I say? “Maybe not this time.” I handed him a Hershey square. “But who knows for next year?”
Photo sources, from top: my own; jhrodeo.com; Longmont, CO TimesCall.com; Arnica Spring, jhrodeo.com; pbr.com; successfulworkplace.org.