Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer Camp Wrap Up

Earlier this summer, we shipped the Grape to camp for two weeks.

He would've stayed longer, but the camp books up in the dead of winter, and R. and I weren't going to pony up for more than the minimum stay, before we determined whether our cab-hailing, museum-frequenting kid did well in the wild.

Or the water. (The thing that first caught my eye about this place was the fact that the kids swam twice a day, every day.)

We wanted something out in the country, where he could swim and tramp through the woods—an old timey, totally unplugged camp experience, the kind of place where "indoors" means a covered porch. 

He was five, we couldn't very well send him to the woods of Northern New England armed with some stationery, a can of bug spray, and two dozen pairs of underpants with his name scrawled  inside the waistbands.

This meant taking a bus some twenty miles west of the city.

"It's a reverse commute," R. and I assured ourselves. "There are three adults on the bus. He'll be fine."

Making the bus meant leaving the house with a lot of gear, as well as a camp nurse approved lunch, no later than 7:10 a.m.

In a few short days after school ended, the Grape had become accustomed to sleeping until almost nine. I had to drag his sleeping body out of the bunk every morning.

It was a lot like trying to haul a fifty pound suitcase from an overhead bin, while standing on a ladder.

We would run, frantic, through the park and up the street and past the laundromat, exactly like the folks in the Mo Willems picture book Knuffle Bunny, only with a greater degree of urgency, because if we missed the bus, I'd be in for hours of driving, and part of the point of this exercise was to secure a block of time to finish my third novel.
Note the utter lack of urgency on the part of the Grape on his way to the bus.

I'm proud to report we never missed that bus.

But all this did happen:

He almost capsized under the weight of his backpack the first day.

When the dad who caught him mid-fall suggested I hang a counterweight on his front, I decided to nix the sweatshirt and sweatpants.

The first two afternoons, he came home with both his pants and underwear on backwards.

One of the moms at the bus stop told me that was very good. She explained that her kid wore his wet bathing suit all day, because he didn't want to change clothes. This particular child was signed up for eight weeks.  I saw a lot of Desitin in their future.

On the third day, the Grape wore his swimsuit home, having lost three full changes of clothes, who knows where.

My repeated inquiries as to the location of his clothes and other swimsuit were met with an indignant, "It's not a cubby. It's a crate!" As if that was somehow the crux of the matter.

I think that was the same day he earned an award in tennis, and I didn't believe him, because his school P.E. teachers claim he possesses zero hand-eye coordination.

Moments after he convinced me of its probable existence, the Grape discovered the tennis award had gone missing on the afternoon bus.

He nearly lost his mind.

I had to call the camp and have the person in charge assure the Grape that he would be reunited with his ten-cent pin major achievement award.

I know, I know. They need to learn to deal with disappointment, but maybe not at the same moment I'm about to receive foreign house guests.

While I had the director of the little kids' section on the phone, I asked if the camp might launch a search for the Grape's three sets of lost clothes.

"No problem," she said.

They sent him home on day four bearing two huge plastic bags, full of the belongings of other children in his group (an assortment including a wet towel, a thermos, and a pair of brand new shoes).

We continued in this fashion for the duration of the camp session. Exasperating? Mildly.

Ultimately the little hassles didn't matter, because the Grape had the time of his life.

The camp issued a shirt to be worn the first day. The Grape wanted to wear it every morning, because he was so thrilled and proud to be going to camp.  Who wouldn't be? The place was a slice of kid heaven. He learned to swim (HURRAY!).  He made new friends. He went boating. He climbed a rock wall. He even caught a fish.
The Grape with his "lucky" rod and a perch (?). I suspect the campers have been catching and releasing the same fish for years.

So I washed the shirt every night, and promised to sign him up for next year, even though the 7:15 to 4:30 absence every day had started to feel really long (to me—he was fine).

He'll be a year older. By then I'm hopeful he'll remember that the flap belongs on the front of the underwear.

And if he doesn't, who cares?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Whys of Summer Camp

Mama guilt drove me to do it.

As a kid, I spent my early summers outdoors.

We were either  on the beach in Rhode Island, or in the woods behind our house, or at my mother's family's cabin, near Lake Saimaa in Finland.

It was rustic. There was (and still is) an outhouse involved, and a well, where we kept things like milk cold in a bucket at the end of a long rope, because nobody wanted to mess with a gas refrigerator.

We foraged for berries and mushrooms, and out grandfather set traps for lake fish, because that's what good Finns do in the summer.

The road to the cabin featured boulders and compact car sized pits. If we had too many people piled into the car, a 1970 Skoda, it would get stuck.

So my brother and I (and any visiting children past toddling age) were kicked out to navigate the last mile or two on foot.

"Beware of moose! And poisonous vipers!"my grandmother would admonish, as we clomped away in our rubber boots, stamped "Made by Nokia in Finland" on the insides.

My brother and I ran semi-wild, our feet always dirty, and our bodies always smelling faintly of pond water or salt or Noxzema, or some combination thereof. Many days, our swimsuits never dried.

The Grape has none of this.

Sure, being a city kid has its perks. He can hail a cab, and he handily navigates the neighborhood at rush hour on his bike. He's been to the symphony and various museums. He frequents playgrounds that would've blown my mind when I was his age, when I was easily impressed by a single swing hung from a tree limb. He can explain how to get from Point A to Point B on the subway, even if it involves changing lines. He sees and hears a diverse range of people every day.

But one day last fall, after a soaking rainstorm, the trees on our street hung low.

The Grape said, "It's just like the woods."

Except it wasn't. These trees were in evenly spaced planting squares, and our feet were on the pavement.

I hit the Internet and signed my city boy up for the campiest day camp I could find within a semi-reasonable driving radius of our home.

I wanted the Grape to swim, and go boating, and tramp through the woods, and hang out outdoors all day, as far from a screen or a classroom as practicable.

We went to an open house. It poured that day. The Grape wailed in the backseat that I was the meanest mother ever, and he could not believe I was doing this to him. "How can you just send me away with strangers in the middle of nowhere? What kind of mother are you?"

He carried on as if I was about to abandon him forever in some Deliverance town.

R. and I reassured him that we signed him up for the minimum time, two weeks. He could do anything for two weeks. Nine days, really.

The Grape turned his gaze towards the heavens, or at least at the roof of the car, as if wondering how he received such clueless twits for parents.

We pulled into the camp. The Grape saw the beach and the boats and the rock wall and the tidy rows of tents.

His eyes boggled.

"I get to go here?"

R. and I exhaled. The place felt magical, like a throwback to an unplugged time, even in the rain.
A slice of kid heaven in Sudbury, Massachusetts, even in a downpour.

We took the now bouncing, smiling Grape on the tour.

A little girl in our group asked the guide, a college age counselor, "Why is that pile of rocks over there?"

The counselor looked confused for a moment.

"It's nature," he said.

"Not art?" the little girl pressed.

"Nature," our guide said, more firmly.

R. and I exchanged a glance: we were definitely doing the right thing.

Or were we? It was twenty miles away. There was a bus to contend with, and we didn't have the most stellar experience with school buses last fall. There were so many belongings to organize, and the Grape's backpack nearly outweighed him.

I didn't sleep a wink the night before his first day. What if he got bullied on the bus? Was he too little? Were we crazy to ship him so far away? What if he lost his lunch? What if he didn't make any friends?

And in the darkest hours of the morning: GAH! What if he drowns?

I did what any reasonable Mama in my position would do: I flipped on the lamp and woke up R.


"He won't drown. These people know what they're doing."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. They would be out of business if they drowned people's kids. Now go the f--- to sleep. You need to get up and make the nut-free lunch in two hours."

Next post: How it worked out...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

I Got Pantsed at the Grocery Store

The Kindergarten teachers, like the preschool teachers before them, warned me this would happen. As the the school year draws to a close, the kids go "a bit berserk."

Kids who normally cycle through the full range of human emotions every ten minutes accelerate that rate. The Grape can manage a full laugh-cry-meltdown-whine-bounce-off-walls-cackle-like-lunatic cycle that takes 90 seconds from start to finish.  Lately this phenomenon continues on endless loop.

The roiling emotions, I understand, may be coupled with whackadoo, out of character behaviors.

Yesterday, the Grape pantsed me in the grocery store checkout line. (I guess that should teach me to appear in public in yoga pants.)

Pantsing was so far beyond the Grape's normal repertoire of stunts that it took me a second to process what was happening, another second to re-cover my posterior.

The cashier politely averted her eyes.

Naturally, there was a college boy (also laughing) behind us in line. I could see the thought bubble over his head: Which aisle for condoms?

Unfortunately I couldn't stop laughing whole time I attempted to explain how wholly unacceptable I found the Grape's behavior. You try saying, "We do not ever pull Mamma's pants down in the grocery store," with a straight face.

If the child is to change schools come September, the berserk level goes on steroids. Last spring, Kindergarten loomed like some inexplicable, ephemeral concept, like Heaven, for example. The Grape acted like a victim of demonic possession for months.

At least this year, the Grape can trot down the corridor and peek at the brave new world of First Grade with his own little eyes.

Fair enough. Many adults don't handle looming change and uncertainty well. Of course five-year-olds have difficulty processing their bittersweet emotions once the calendar flips to June.

The Grape told me he was both happy and sad about summer vacation. Happy, because we get to go the beach with his cousins, and he can go camping with Grandpa. Sad, because he wouldn't see his kindergarten pals every day. He added that he'd miss the kindergarten teachers a lot, which tells me they've done a terrific job.

I guess it's now up to me to do a better job wearing real pants with belts. Or longer tops.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Most Dreaded Subject Line for Parents of Young Children

No email subject line strikes fear in the hearts of parents of young children quite like "Head Lice."

These emails invariably arrive late in the day—maddening in timing, ambiguity, and precision all at once. Also it's impossible to read one without feeling itchy.

"Dear Kindergarten Parents,

We have a confirmed case of Head Lice in the classroom. Please be aware our school has a no nit policy!

Have a great evening!


"Best," as Samantha quipped years ago on Sex and the City, is the worst. In this case, it means your evening plans are shot to hell. It means 837 loads of laundry and hours of combing.

The first time one of the Head Lice greetings hit my inbox, I remained calm and called the school.

And scratched my itchy head while I sat on hold.

The Grape, they assured me, had checked out nit free.

Which of course meant nothing, seeing as the whole problem with Head Lice is they spread. They've got strong little legs, and they lay eggs like it's their job. Which I suppose it is.

To make matters worse, I'd just spent the day on a field trip with all 32 kindergarten students.

I'd encouraged them to cram in closer for a group photo.

I'd ridden the bus for forty-five minutes each way with these kids.

I'd laughed as they literally piled all over each other on the playground.

It was five p.m. when I saw the email. I'd arranged to meet an old friend for an early dinner. I was still dusty, sweaty, and utterly unfit to be seen in a nice restaurant. I'd banked on having thirty minutes to clean myself up.

Now I had to de-louse the Grape.

I did what any reasonable adult would do.

I panicked.

I procured the special shampoo and the evil metallic nit comb, forced the Grape to shed all his clothes on the patio, and refused to admit him to the house until I'd treated his head. (This all seemed reasonable at the time. In my defense, it was an extraordinarily warm spring day.)

I asked Siri to find me a photo of a nit. I held the phone next to the Grape's head, barked at the poor little guy to hold still.

There was something small and white. Dandruff? It really, truly looked like dandruff, but I wasn't about to take chances.

I know about Head Lice. I got them at school (twice) at age five.

The first time, I got shampooed with awful insecticidal liquid. It came in a brown prescription bottle, smelled like industrial solvent, and was dispensed to my frazzled mother by a frowning and judgmental pharmacist.

I remember it burning.

I had long hair. It took four hours to comb.

The second time I came home with Head Lice, I got the horrible shampoo again.

I also got a tragic home haircut and spent the rest of the school year looking like the Dutch Boy from the paint can—a drastic esthetic my mother inexplicably saw fit to commemorate with a Woolworth's portrait, which still, equally inexplicably, hangs in a place of honor in my late grandmother's living room.

I was not getting a boy haircut, but I had twenty minutes remaining to get turned around and nit free.

I hauled a bucket of warm water and the modern, pleasant-smelling special shampoo outside.

The Grape went along with it all until he realized I was proposing al fresco hair washing. He started to whine. He appealed to logic. "My teacher didn't see any on me!"

Lila the Dog and Lucy the Cat wandered onto the deck to see what the fuss was about.

"Siri!" I demanded, as a fresh terror gripped my soul. "Can dogs and cats get head lice?"

It took her a minute, but she was certain they could not.

Thank God.

The poor, naked Grape protested, cried that he wanted to come indoors. He was so very tired and he didn't like all this combing, and he was so, so, so hungry, too. And the towel I had wrapped around him was soaking wet.


The Grape burst into tears. Loud tears. It was not a proud parenting moment for me.

My neighbor, an innocent and childless bystander, who happened to be walking his dog in the alley below, heard the whole exchange. He gave me a strange look. He didn't appear concerned enough to call social services, but I got the distinct impression he walked away thinking we might deserve a reality show.

I decided I had to cancel on my friend at the very moment a text arrived from her: "You won't believe the day I had. So happy to be going out. See you soon!"

I couldn't bail. I hate when people bail.

I texted back: "Head Lice. Need Wine. 15 minutes late. So sorry!"

She responded immediately, offering to cancel. Nonsense, I told her.

R. arrived home.  For twenty minutes, I combed what I now believe were pieces of the Grape's scalp through his wet hair while R. examined mine, strand by strand. We probably looked like an ape family picking at each other. Every stitch of clothing the Grape and I had been wearing went into the washer. R. and I congratulated ourselves on dodging a bullet. I told R. I probably should go apologize to the neighbor, explain it was a louse emergency. He advised leaving well enough alone.

I made it to my dinner, half an hour late, with wet but (hopefully) nit-free hair.

My friend declined to hug me.

We got the Head Lice email again this week. 

By now, the parent community has enough louse-based war stories that everyone has a suggestion.

"Drench your hair with olive oil and sleep with a shower cap over it," is the best one I've heard. "It suffocates the buggers."

That's hot, right?

It's not like there aren't a million blogs bemoaning the fact that adult time becomes non-existent in households with little kids.

Now we are supposed to sexy ourselves up with shower caps?

I'm going out right now to buy them for all of us. Just in case.

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?