When you're a sixth-grade boy, I learned recently, the big thing is to exchange "insults" with the other guys. You try to top what the other kid said - the grosser the better. From what I gather, it's just a new version of old-fashioned name-calling. And sometimes things get pretty nasty.
"Your mom is Martha Stewart!" another boy hissed at my son recently. Always loyal to his unenlightened mom, my boy felt it was his duty to inform me of this dreadful slur.
Clearly, the child hadn't visited our home in a while. Had he seen the microwaveable dinners in our freezer, the paint chipping off the kitchen ceiling, or the kitty litter box overflowing in the laundry room...well, he'd have come up with a more fitting epithet.
But long after I stopped smirking, I considered the priceless irony of the sixth-grader's remark. Calling someone's mom "Martha Stewart," my son insisted, was "the absolute worst."
Like her or not, there's no avoiding Martha. Visit the nearest Kmart and you can't miss her promotional grin beaming above stacks of sheets, towels, and coordinating soap dishes. By now everyone knows Martha gardens by flashlight, raises her own chickens, and ties cute little bows around the silverware. Looking at her magazines, we can assume she's always having people over for herbed leg of lamb.
Oddly enough, she's also become the woman other women love to resent, a mean June Cleaver on a mission. She has a knack for making us feel guilty - reminding us that we never have enough time to bake lemon squares or hand-embroider birthday cards.
Still, there's a market for Martha. A huge market. We can call her names if we want to, and congratulate ourselves for upholding our feminist principles and earning professional degrees. We can brag that we're way too busy to fuss over the house. But Martha's crafty empire is reportedly worth more than $200 million - which means quite a few of us are buying her coordinated sheets and bath accessories. And Martha probably doesn't care what we call her.
Once in a while, I'll browse through Martha Stewart Living magazine on the newsstands and try to fathom what drives this glue-gun wielding woman. And like other feminists I know, I catch myself taking her name in vain.
But now that I've been thrown into her dubious league, I'm having second thoughts. And I wonder: Why are some of us so mad at Martha? Why do we even care? And what does all this Martha-bashing really say about our culture?
Maybe we're still conflicted about homespun activities such as decorating, gardening, and even mothering. Maybe we envy Martha for earning millions on the things our grandmothers did for free. Or maybe Martha scares us because she makes the whole concept of shelter seem more important than we want to believe it is. Yet it seems callous to slander anyone, famous or not, whose mission is venerating the home.
And how strange. Americans spend a fair amount of money on household goods. We claim to want our dwellings to look welcoming and beautiful - yet we dare not let anyone think we've sacrificed valuable time making them that way.
Today we devalue the human impulse to nurture loved ones and feather our nests, and apparently we're passing along this ambivalence to our kids.
So I assured my son that Martha Stewart isn't really the worst thing you can call somebody's mother. Nor was his buddy the first to try it.
I still recall the time when an overnight guest (a traveling female executive) was visiting our home and I was too lazy to cook a hot breakfast. So I quickly cut up some fresh fruit and arranged it neatly on a glass plate.
"Look at you!" gushed my guest as I emerged from the kitchen with the impromptu fruit platter, "you're a real Martha Stewart!"
Even then, I wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not.
* Cynthia G. La Ferle is a columnist for The Daily Tribune, of Royal Oak, Mich., and the author of 'Old Houses, Good Neighbors' (Self-Reliance Press, 1994).