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?

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