Let me tell you two notable features of Beverly Hills High School. First, it has an oil well in the parking lot. A real, working oil well -- the school makes more than half a million dollars a year from it. This is one PTA that never has to hold a bake sale. Second thing -- the real-life students at Beverly Hills High actually look better than the actors who play them on TV. Why? Because for the last 100 years, the best looking boys in Boston and the most beautiful babes from Boise have been moving to Hollywood to make it in show business, and when they don't -- and they usually don't -- they stick around and procreate. Los Angeles is chockablock with gorgeous gas station attendants, stunning supermarket stock boys, exquisite ER nurses... and their children. And their children's children, and their children's children's children.
So when I found myself at Beverly Hills High School Parents Night, I looked around the auditorium with its festive bunting and hopeful science displays, and all I could think was: "There are so many cute boys here!" And then I remembered: "Oh damn. I'm one of the parents."
Here's the thing. I'm only in disguise as an adult. I'm not talking about 50 is the new 40, or "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?" I know how old I am. I'm 4. Okay, somewhere between 4 and... 11 and 3/4. Left to my own devices, I bite my nails, I swing my legs, I twirl my hair like a kindergartener. I still read lying on my stomach the floor. Waiting in line is torture for me. When you turn around in your airplane or theater seat to scold that fidgeting child behind you -- it's probably me.
My favorite color is glitter. Failing that, neon. I want to wear false eyelashes made of silver tinsel and I am still searching for a pair of running shoes with the soles that light up when you jump on them that come in my size. The Fruit Loops in my cupboard and the Hawaiian Punch in my refrigerator are not for guests. They're mine. This is my favorite scarf. To you it may be a feather boa, to me it's insulation. I have to hire grown-ups to put outfits together for me, because if I do it myself I end up looking like... graffiti. This evening I'm dressed as Melanie Vare's mother-in-law. But really (removes long skirt to reveal checkerboard leggings...) See?
Now, I've written award-winning books about women scientists and inventors, and I've written books about pop culture figures and addiction and recovery -- I'm even a visiting professor at Important Universities. But as far as I'm concerned, I am only posing as an adult. I still expect you to set up the card table for me and the other kids at Thanksgiving dinner.
Now, it turns out, there's an actual cognitive issue underlying all this. I am not, as current jargon has it, "neuronormative." My pre-frontal cortex has a case of arrested development. My brain's executive function is funct'ed up. Some people's reward centers get hot-wired early on, and we never learn to take that all-important detour through the gray matter where you weigh evidence and make decisions. My eyes say, "That looks like fun" and the next thing you know, my body is jumping out of an airplane. My head never gets a word in edgewise. "You're cute, let's get married." Apparently, in Big Girl World, there are stages in between those two concepts.
There are things I did without thinking twice that I am really happy about. I'm glad I jumped out of the airplane, glad I swam with the sharks... I'm sorry I married that drug dealer, sorry I painted my living room "midnight ebony" -- apparently, where paint is concerned, once you go black, you really can never go back. But on balance, "It seemed like a good idea at the time" isn't the worst thing to have on your tombstone. I wouldn't be a mother-in-law if it weren't for one of my ill-conceived marriages, and I have to tell you, Russell Alexander Vare is far and away the best brainstorm I ever had.
Anyone who knows us knows that my son is the more mature of the two. I only pretend to be an adult in the first place for his sake. Because a boy deserves a mom.
For instance. Let me take you back to Beverly Hills High. Russell comes home one day during senior year and tells me he wants to get his tongue pierced. I know my role as a parent: Never let anyone make a decision at 17 they're going to have to live with at 45. I say, "No! Your tongue will get infected!" Do I believe this? It doesn't matter. This is what a mother says. "You'll break a tooth! People will think you're a gay prostitute! You'll never be President!"
Russell looks somewhat askance at the women who talked his father into letting him skip class to go backstage at a Metallica concert. "You didn't mind when I dyed my hair blue," he says. "Hair grows back," I counter. "You, know, when I'm 18, I won't need your permission." "Fine. If you still want to do something that foolish when you're 18, I'll pay for it myself." We spend the next eight months posting opposing arguments on the refrigerator door with magnets: "I'll see your tongue infection findings, and raise you an American Dental Association study... "
On his 18th birthday, I walked Russell into the piercing parlor and paid for his tongue bar. He got to tell all his classmates, "Like my jewelry? My mom bought it for me." A week later, he dared me to get a tattoo and without a second thought, I did this. (It's the chalk outline of a dead body on my shoulder blade, in case you can't see it over the podcast.) What can I tell you? It seemed like a good idea at the time.
My son knows I'm just a big kid, but I think he also knows he can rely on me to be a pretty good make-believe adult. My pre-frontal cortex may be at the card table with the kids, but at least my hands are in the kitchen, doing dishes with the grown-ups.
This piece was originally performed on THAT TIME OF THE MONTH, a women's storytelling performance and podcast in Nashville.