Monday, May 18, 2015

The Red Shirting Question Resurfaces

Here were are again, like our own family's version of Groundhog Day.

The end of the academic year looms and we are faced once again with the breaking news that the Grape is the youngest kid in his class.

His teachers probe our opinions carefully, as if fishing for a splinter with a needle.

We sit around the tiny table in the tiny chairs. They lean across the thoughtfully curated spread of art projects and barely whisper: "Do we want to 'loop' him?"

The Grape is scheduled to enter first grade at age six years and three weeks.

There are no other Boys of Summer in his kindergarten class. In the kindergarten class across the hall, there is one. Perhaps two, but I think only one.

The kindergarten girls have more widely distributed birthday demographics than their male classmates, but they're all older than the Grape, too.

This data point interests me, because it's the girls with whom the Grape has forged deep friendships. One of his besties will actually celebrate her seventh birthday in June. So what we have is a young boy who plays best with older girls.

The Grape likes the "girl" games: elaborate, often drawn out, imaginative play scenarios and role plays. They build little worlds in their corner of the classroom or recess yard. He's got laser like focus and a marathon attention span for this type of play.

Whether at home or at school, he still lives very much inside his imagination—something I'm in terror of stifling with too much didactic learning.

I cringe when the handwriting sheets come home, and in fairness, our school doesn't do a lot of this.

Apparently I'm not alone.

The New York Times ran a brilliant piece yesterday by David Kohn, singing my song: Send children to school young. Very young. But don't make them do much in the academic sphere except learn through play and natural exploration until age seven or eight. Because it's going to backfire. Not for everyone, but for too many of them.

I firmly believe that if you crush the love of learning early, you will almost never be able to rekindle it, especially with the limited resources available to most public school teachers in this country.

I'm afraid that the national conversation about universal preschool (VERY GOOD) will lead to younger and younger children bent over desks, resigned to dull tasks, as if they're some sort of midget medieval scribes (VERY BAD), instead of socializing, playing, imagining, exploring, reading, running in circles like banshees outdoors, and resting.

The article didn't open the attention deficit can of worms, and I'm not a pediatrician.

But to me, it's common sense that if a significant number* of otherwise healthy kids need to be drugged to get through an elementary school day, the problem isn't with the kids, it's with the structure of the school day.

I, for better or worse, can't decide national education policy. I can only decide the Grape's plans for next year.

The Grape hangs in there with the older kids on the more academic side of kindergarten. He loves "making books" and he likes math. He likes exploring new subjects like nature and the solar system with his classmates. He loves music and art and going to the library. I'm certainly not against academics; I just believe they shouldn't make up the bulk of a young child's day.

The class hosted a sweet event this winter, where parents came in and everyone made a book with his/her child. The Grape came up with "The Dog Who Wanted to Ski." I admit I helped draw the dog's crossed skis, but the rest is all Grape:

"They went to the green circle but the dog's skis got tangled."

He got the thing done and turned in on time. From that I infer his attention span for a high-focus task is the creation of four pages plus a cover. Seems reasonable to me.

Most importantly, the Grape wants to go to first grade.

That's where his friends are headed, and we've explained that there's more writing and reading and less free play (though thankfully first graders go outdoors for recess twice a day).

He claims to understand, but I'm skeptical.

But not as skeptical as I am of keeping him back.

In my book, the only thing worse than more didactic learning is a re-run of the past year's didactic learning.

We aren't "looping" (or red-shirting) him this year.

I'm sure we'll have to field this question next year. I have no idea how we'll feel about the jump from first to second, but my thinking is that we keep him with his class as long as he's happy and keeping up.

If and when he asks to be kept back, or he cannot handle the material, we'll "loop" him then.

What I'd really love to see is all the little ones freed from their desks for most of the school day. 

Unfortunately, the Let Them Play More trend has about as much chance of catching on as our dog has of learning to ski.

* The actual number of kids on drugs for "attention disorders" is hard to nail down. Various sources use various methods and yield various stats. But all sources agree the number of cases is trending steeply up.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Mouse Sees and Hears All

There's something creepy afoot in Disney World, and it's got nothing to do with classic cartoon villains.

It's common knowledge that Disney employees an army of logisticians, consumer analysts and transportation engineers, to track its customers and facilitate movement and control of crowds. We expect security cameras everywhere.

But Disney's facial recognition software veers too far from Disney Magic and too close to Big Brother. And the eavesdropping is off the hook.

The U.S. military, the most powerful military on the planet, wants to buy Disney's spy technology. So basically the Mouse has better capabilities than the CIA. Or at least the Pentagon.

The Grape, luckiest kid on the planet, recently returned from his second trip to the Mouse Empire.
Innocent magic rodent? Or an agent the envy of spy agencies worldwide?

Thanks largely to David Shute's AMAZING crowd calendar, the Grape had a ball, and we adults had the most stress-free trip possible (which to Disney novices, still feels crowded, crushed, and costly).

I noticed two things on this trip that I didn't fully process on my first.

They are always watching—at least on their newer attractions.

On our last morning, we went straight to the very popular Mine Train ride, stood in minimal line, and rode the newest coaster.  At no point did anyone in my party scan their band. We didn't have fast passes for the ride.

Yet, two days after we returned home, Disney sent us a video of us on the Mine Train. It came in the same email as several stills from Buzz Lightyear and Expedition Everest. Note that this also means they presumably sent pictures of us, including the Grape, to the people who happened to ride with us.

Possibly creepier: They are listening. (?!?!?)

It was the post fireworks rush from the park at the Magic Kingdom. The Grape was cooked. We stood in line on the dock to take the Disney water shuttle back to the hotel.

The gentleman behind us in line (a party of two adults and two kids) struck up a conversation with R.

"It's all for the kids," we agreed when he expressed that sentiment. "And it's all VERY expensive for what you get, especially in the restaurants and hotels."

Our new friend agreed effusively. "Five star prices for three star food!"

"But we know that coming in. Again, it's all for the kids. They love it."

We pointed at fake Tahiti (Disney's Polynesian Resort) across the man-made lagoon.

"If we didn't have kids, we could go to real Tahiti!"

"Or real Paris! Or real Venice!"

And so forth. The boat began loading. The Disney employee allowed R., the Grape and me to board then abruptly cut off the line. He physically blocked our new friend from taking another step.

Plenty of room on the boat. Maybe a dozen seats left. Literally two hundred people on the dock.


Survey says: Doubtful.

We all accept that the Magic Band, which enables park, room and Fast Pass ride admission, contains a computer tracker. Fine.

Call me old fashioned, but I see a world of difference between tracking guests' choices in attractions and shopping, and actually listening to their conversations and snapping candids without consent.

I'm sure Disney doesn't care what I think—as evidenced by the behavior of their front desk staff and their maddening restaurant reservation rigidity.

My kid loves the place, and he's in the prime window (I'd say the prime window opens at age four and runs into the early teens—a perception Disney works hard to dispute).

Despite this newish ick factor, and the highly disturbing tolerance by Disney of rampant abuse of its wonderful handicapped accommodations, we'll likely return at some point.

Ultimately it's academic; I don't do or say anything in public I don't mind repeated.

So yes, Disney, I'd rather go to real Paris than your Paris, and I don't care who knows that.

All I'm saying is it would've been nice to be forewarned of all this surveillance that makes the Pentagon swoon.

Even George Orwell's characters knew that Big Brother's telescreens could see and hear them at all times.

And maybe they could tweak the Mouse Club song:


Friday, March 27, 2015

Put a Woman on It

The campaign to boot late President Andrew Jackson from his position of honor on the twenty-dollar-bill is rightly starting to gain traction.

It's high time we banished that brute's likeness, and replaced it with a portrait of an American woman.

Predictably, many names have been floated. Without ANY searching, I've seen petitions for Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt cross my social media feeds.

I think the honor should go to  Emma Lazarus.

Yeah, the writer/child of immigrants casts her vote for Team Poet/Child of Immigrants.

Shocking, I know. But hear me out.

First, I admit I could be very easily swayed to the Sojourner Truth camp.

Okay, I could be swayed to most any of these camps, and I have to say, I find it depressing that we're only considering maybe, possibly including one woman in the American billfold.

Like that's somehow fair.

I suppose it's only money; if I had to choose I'd rather see no women on the bills, and five or six women on the Supreme Court, and 52 in the Senate, and so forth.

But I digress.

I like Emma Lazarus because she penned the most recognizable articulation of this country's moral mission, immortalized on that most iconic of our monuments, the Statue of Liberty:

...Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

A child of immigrants, reminding us once again at this highly divided time, that the United States is, was, and ever will be a nation of immigrants, an exceptional case among the countries of the world.

What's more perfect than that?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What I Learned from Binge Watching Scandal

I had walking pneumonia last month, which in my case was basically a First World Problem, albeit one that came with much hacking and wheezing. I felt winded if I stood up. I had the plague for a good three weeks.

I'm most thankful that I didn't have to drag my tail to a "normal" job. I remember corporate America well. Sick employees face a Catch-22: Your boss and colleagues hate you for coming in sick, and they hate you for taking sick days. I am also deeply grateful for my mother and sister-in-law, who took the Grape off my hands for the lion's share of the February school break.

I convalesced by discovering and binge-watching Scandal.

Some friends say the writing has gone over a cliff (wink) in terms of credulity, but I love a good caper, particularly this one, with a smart woman at the center of multiple dark conspiracies.

Well done, Shonda Rhimes.

Luckily we writers can chalk up excessive TV viewing as a learning exercise.

The main downside to watching so much Scandal: I kept wondering whether my suspense thriller, The K Street Affair, should have been farther fetched.

While writing early drafts, I decided my scheme (wherein corporate titans from around the globe conspire with top elected officials and those charged to protect them to perpetrate major crimes, because they are Greedy and Insatiably Power Hungry) would need to be really complicated.

Watching all that Scandal taught me that fast paced writing will make the audience come along for the ride—and they don't need to see every nut and bolt of a conspiracy to believe it. They will accept that their fellow humans will do anything, when driven by lust (whether for power or flesh or cash, or any combination thereof).

At some point, around my seventeenth draft of K Street, I decided that it was too remarkable for my smart but civilian heroine to remain alive through the terrifying events that befell her. I toned down some big events in the book. Mistake?  Hard to say. It's that credulity thing again: it's awfully fun, as a writer, to dance as close to the edge as possible.

In sunnier news, I'm confident, after watching all this Scandal, that putting two hot, imperfect men in my novel was absolutely the right call.

Everyone loves a love triangle, and I suspect many fans love Ms. Rhimes for bucking the big screen trend: Olivia Pope gets lots of woman-focused sex.

Aside: While watching this love triangle, I have also contemplated what it means for my psyche that I hope Olivia chooses Jake over Fitz. Or at least chooses herself.

The K Street Affair is a quirky book: a woman centered political and spy caper that doesn't fit neatly into any of the spaces on the bookshelf. It was fun to write, at times scary to research, and ultimately the novel I wanted to publish—a misfit, nerdy sort of book. Kind of like its author.

Because K Street was a quirky novel, I never shopped it* to major publishers, a huge mistake I realized too late.

Precise moment of my epiphany regarding how badly I screwed up:  Thanksgiving, 2012, when Barnes & Noble selected The K Street Affair for their General Fiction Book Club for January 2013, and I had no distribution network to get books into their 700 stores, or any mechanism to take back unsold copies. That was an enormous missed opportunity for me as a writer.

I'm thrilled by the success of Scandal.  It means I'm not the only woman writer who's tired of seeing the guys have all the fun, and that audiences agree.

*Full disclosure: A few agents saw, years earlier, a very rough draft of the book that would become The K Street Affair (2013). After several of them advised me to shelve it for a while, and write something more "mainstream," I listened and wrote The Hazards (2011).

Monday, February 23, 2015

Snow of Doom

Back when I lived in DC, I used to marvel that a dusting of powder would create gridlock worthy of a National Guard call up.

"In New England, they know how to deal," fellow Northeastern expats and I would smugly assure each other, as we watched one of the capital city's two tiny truck plows push a path down M Street. "Snowmaggedon, or whatever this one is called, would not happen in Boston."

I'm ready to cry uncle.

Because in Boston, there is only The Snow.

The Snow has rendered our already dour winter population cranky. Local commutes rival work days in length, and our parking wars make shameful international news. (Though I admit some of the photos in the space saver article score high marks for creativity.)

Note to neighbors: It is not okay to vandalize your neighbors' cars.

Special aside to the old-timers who argue that they "own" public parking spaces: please look in the mirror next time you feel like spouting about entitled students.

Boston resembles Arundel without the magic.

I freely admit to loving the first storm, but things have gotten out of hand, even for snow lovers like the Grape and me.

Our family has snow induced First World Problems:

The Grape is stir crazy. He hasn't had a full week of school since December. When he does have a full week of school, he will have forgotten what that feels like, and he will burn up on re-entry like a cheap Soviet satellite. It will be like September, but with the added locomotive challenges posed by The Snow.

R. got dirty slush all over his new jacket. Why? Because he went outside to help a cop who'd gotten his cruiser stuck in 18 inches of slush in the alley, and who thought the answer was to floor the gas.

While his Dad pushed the car with another neighbor, the Grape advised the cop "to be more gentle with the car." It was moderately embarrassing, because the five-year-old was right.

Our roof sprung a leak, and the dripping sound as it hits the bucket near my bed is making me twitchy. The water stain on ceiling spreads like mold in a petri dish, and presently resembles an obscene gesture.

My book club has been cancelled seven times.

Instacart is more like Day After Tomorrow Cart.

I have walking pneumonia, and feel winded whenever I stand up, let alone stand at the school bus stake out for forty-five minutes.

I realize these issues are nothing, compared to the stories of misery reported by low wage employees trying to navigate The Snow. Or the ones about little kids stuck on school buses for three hours, because The Snow causes unprecedented, twice a day, absolute standstill gridlock.

Why does The Snow do this? This is Boston. We should be able to deal.

The Snow has our number this time, partly because the city government made the stunning decision to allow street parking on major thoroughfares while the snow piles remain two stories high.

Picture this: Cars parked in the travel lanes, because the street parking lanes are full of snow. Which means you have one lane of travel in each direction on major roadways. Totally avoidable. Maddening, really. 

Our crosswalks remain terrifying, and every time I have to make a turn in the car, it's a blind move of faith, because nobody can see over the aforementioned two-story snow piles. People are walking in the streets, dodging sliding cars, because the sidewalks still aren't cleared. Here's a picture of our school bus stop:
Intersection of Columbus and Holyoke, Boston's South End, 2/11/15 (no change as of today)
Last time I was at the grocery store, the bleary-eyed clerk told me it took him three and a half hours to get into work from Brockton (a town south of the city). This is two and a half hours each way longer than normal. The bone tired guy bagging purchases related a similar story from a northern suburb. Their commutes have been this way since the first storm, almost a month ago.

Again, why?

For starters, our city has a rickety old transit system from the 1960s that loses any shred of its (highly debatable) charm as soon as the weather turns foul. 

There's no plan on the horizon for meaningful investment in the T, as we call our subway and bus system. Maybe we should rethink that, because I don't buy the hype that this winter is an anomaly.

Is The Snow of Doom our new winter normal?

Winter, as we nostalgically recall it. might be kaput, because polar warming sends the arctic weather our way. I hate to be a buzz killer, but we may need to contemplate the possibility that this trend won't magically reverse. The bitter Arctic Air that keeps the snow from melting between storms feels unlikely to self deport.

Consider: The neighborhood kids are tired of sledding.

When I was a kid, I may not have had to walk uphill to school through the snow both ways, but I never got tired of sledding. We'd get a big snowfall, we'd enjoy the sledding and snowmen for a few days, and it would all melt too soon.
Actual children bored with sledding: an unprecedented complaint from the kindergarten set.

Each storm wouldn't pile onto its predecessor, because in the 1980s, the New England climate didn't resemble Siberia's.

With everyone punchy and frazzled, it's uplifting to remember that The Snow has beauty. Unfortunately you need to leave the city to find it.

Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, February 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

Making Memories in the Park After Dark

I was five when the Blizzard of 1978 shut down Rhode Island for several days. My father got stuck at his office in Providence, for days that eventually morphed into weeks in family lore.

Everyone lost power in our coastal community. My mother, two-year-old brother, and I trudged a couple of blocks in the dark to camp with neighbors who had a wood stove. Cross country skis were involved. (My first ones were made by Karhu, of wood, and they were red and schlepped from Finland in hand luggage.) My brother sat in a sled and held a flashlight.

(I have many childhood memories of my brother holding a flashlight. It was his lot in our family life before he grew and graduated to carrying heavy items.)

That was the storm during which people became disoriented in their yards and died. And got trapped in their cars and died on the interstate.

I'm not certain 1978 was the one from which we learned to shut down cities before a major storm hits, but it at least got people thinking about common sense planning: travel bans and parking bans and emergency plans to get hospital staff to work.

The Blizzard of 2015 was kid stuff in comparison to 1978, but it gave the Grape two days off from school, and inspired a cooking frenzy in my kitchen.

Tuesday we racked up almost two feet of fluffy powder, but the winds weren't blowing anywhere near the forecasted "DOOM" levels here in Boston. So we logged many hours on the sledding hill.

But the best part was when the whole family trooped outside for a walk and some after bedtime sledding.

Boston looked like Finland Tuesday night, before the plows got any roads cleared down to pavement, and I wanted the Grape to see.

"We're making memories," I assured R., who very briefly questioned whether a fourth full-family trek into the storm was absolutely necessary.

I can't remember the city being so quiet. Even the bars and liquor stores were closed. Everything had stopped, except for the plows.

The silence of the stores reminded me of the way holidays used to be, before the big box stores set out to ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the department stores followed suit.

The Grape kept marveling at the snow covered, empty streets, and saying, "It's so beautiful." The snow was still coming down at this point, the travel ban still in place. Lila the Dog bounded ahead and we pulled the Grape in his sled. "It's like magic," he said.

I marveled that he was the only little kid out there taking it in, climbing the snow mountains to stand next to the stop lights and street signs while no cars skidded below.

"Take it in now, because it will all be salted and plowed away tomorrow," we told him.

After our walk, we went sledding in the park in the dark. It was a little before 9 o'clock and he was the only kid on the hill—the same hill that had been jam packed with his friends six hours earlier.

I thought it was a shame that no other little ones were out there to see the magic, the snow flickering against the streetlights for one rare silent night.

When something this special happens, bedtime can wait.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happy. Smiling. In Control. Or Not?

While sitting on a chairlift last Saturday afternoon, I overheard a ski instructor telling his middle-elementary-age charges, "We're happy. We're smiling. We're in control."

You could tell by the tone of the guy's voice that he'd had a long day.

But I thought, Fantastic. New family motto. 

Who cares if it's ten degrees out? We have appropriate gear, and we, by which I mean the Grape, should be grateful we get to go skiing in the first place.

I chanted the ski school guy's words at the Grape for the rest of the afternoon as he zipped down increasingly steeper slopes with grinning confidence. "We're happy, smiling, and in control."

Control is a good thing, R. and I agreed.

Which reminded me of one terrifying challenge looming: the Drop Off Play Date.

I'm a control freak who tries not to over-parent.

I let my kid climb trees. I let him ride ahead of me on his scooter or bike, because I trust him to stop and wait at intersections. I let him play in suburban friends' backyards with other kids, without an adult out there.

I've taught him to be as street smart as possible.

Not to trust cars to stop for us.

To avoid touching needles, broken glass, shit (human and canine), half eaten candy bars, realistic looking toy assault rifles, and condoms—all items he and his friends have encountered in the otherwise lovely playground across the street.

To respect unknown dogs. 

To give space to the visibly mentally ill and to drunks passed out on benches. Particularly if they have their pants down.

All necessary city skills.

I've also taught him the manners necessary to be a good guest.

He knows to say please and thank you, to flush the toilet, and remove his shoes when asked.  He understands that he is not to jump on furniture, and that he's definitely not to use any rude language.

I still get hives thinking of the Drop Off Play Date. 

The kind where the kid's parents aren't in my social network. (I'd have no problem whatsoever dropping him off with a mom I know.)

There are the two key differences between preschool and kindergarten: you no longer have any vote in selecting your child's friends, and you don't meet the other parents twice a day, every day.

We hosted a Drop Off Play Date last Friday. The Grape and his friend, a child from the kindergarten class, had a blast. 

But I was surprised that the mom, whom I couldn't confidently pick from a crowd, allowed me to pick her kid up in a car, and keep her kid at my house for four hours.

This is evidently what we're doing now.

I invited another new friend of the Grape's to come over, with her mom, whom I also don't know. The mom thanked me for the invite, but said she'd drop the child off for a couple of hours. She wrote, "It's time to let her spread her wings a bit."

These moms don't know me and we have no friends in common.

But am I the weird one?

I could be drunk all day. I could keep a loaded gun by the door. I could leave the kids in front of the TV and go get a massage. I could send them to the playground unsupervised while hosting a tryst.

The playground is, after all, visible from my bedroom window.

It's obvious to me that I don't do any of the above, but why is it obvious to a complete stranger?

Or do normal brains just not go there? Is the fact that we were all admitted to the same private school supposed to suffice? Because I'm pretty sure private school parents can be bad apples just as easily as public school ones.

I get angry with myself for thinking this way. It's paranoid, unattractive.

It does take a village, and at some point, we need to trust the village. Which is a hard thing for a control freak to do.

Even though I understand that the village self polices, to a point. If a child goes home and reports weirdness, I presume that reduces the chances of a repeat visit.

I've asked the Grape if he wants to go on a Drop Off Play Date, and so far, mercifully, he's told me, "When I'm six."

At which point, he probably won't receive any invitations, because he's declined too many.

I keep reminding myself: He is a full year younger than just about everyone else in kindergarten. A year is a huge deal at this age.

Maybe when he's six, I'll be ready to relinquish a little control.

I'll be more like these other moms, gushing, "Thank you so much for taking him off my hands for a few hours!"