Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun Control Now, Please, Mr. President

Dear Readers: I hate that I am writing about guns when I should be drafting a funny holiday post, but I believe we have watershed opportunity to finally implement meaningful gun control. Pasted below is a letter I just mailed to President Obama, the House and Senate leaders, and my state's Congressional delegation. I am concerned the next few weeks will bring much talk and no action. The President and Congress need to hear from moms and other concerned citizens who want sensible gun control now.

To that end, please feel free to cut and paste my letter and send it as your own if you agree.

December 18, 2012

Dear Mr. President:

Please immediately propose meaningful gun control legislation to Congress. The nation should never have to endure the heartbreak of another massacre like last week's slaughter of children in Newtown, Connecticut. As columnist Gail Collins wrote over the weekend, every country has its fair share of dangerous mentally ill individuals. Only in America do we give them access to the technology to commit mass murder.

We need serious, common sense gun control now.

This is a watershed moment. Please don't let it slip away. Please propose federal legislation to:

1. Ban the sale and possession of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons by anyone other than active duty members of the military and law enforcement.

Such an assault weapons ban should include a buyback program, perhaps modeled on the successful assault weapon buyback conducted by Australia in 1996. However, to ensure the ban is effective, it must have teeth. Those caught in possession of automatic and semiautomatic weapons after the buyback period ends should face significant prison time, e.g., at least ten years in federal prison. Assault weapons are weapons of terror. We should treat those in possession of such weapons accordingly.

2. Ban all sales of expanded magazines and so-called "cop killer" bullets, effective immediately. Do this by executive order, if necessary.

3. Require all guns, even those used solely for hunting and target shooting, be registered. Under the taxation power, mandate states should to collect annual registration fees in an amount not less than $300 per firearm per year. Such licenses should be non-transferable. I.e. If Household Member A is licensed to own a firearm, s/he cannot share that firearm with an unlicensed household member or with any other individual.

All proceeds above the costs of administering the program should go into the state's elementary education coffers. Also under the taxation power, direct the states to mandate that gun owners carry a significant liability policy for each firearm, something similar to mandatory auto liability insurance. Firearms are inherently dangerous, and should be at least as regulated as automobiles. Consider, as Nick Kristof pointed out on Saturday, that we in the United States regulate ladders more than firearms.

4. Immediately close the so-called "gun show loophole" by requiring background checks and significant waiting periods for all gun sales, even those made person to person. Again, please make this sensible reform—one supported by 74 per cent of NRA members—by executive order, if necessary.

Re-run each gun owner's background screening once every ten years, just like we do for driver's licenses. Perhaps consider the Canadian model, wherein a prospective gun buyer must have two witnesses attest to his/her background and mental health status.

5. Ban all Internet sales of firearms and ammunition, effective immediately.

6. Limit the number of guns any individual may own. Give the penalties teeth. Allow citizens to turn in surplus non-assault-style firearms for cash during the assault weapon buyback period.

7. Impose a significant sales tax on all sales of ammunition. It should cost way more than 50 cents a round to murder someone's child.

Like many mothers, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about getting weapons of war off our streets in the aftermath of last week's wholly preventable tragedy. I don't want my child to have to go to school in a lockdown situation. I don't believe any citizen's second amendment rights trump my child's right to a safe and secure public education.

I don't believe any citizen needs an assault weapon to hunt, and I don't buy the popular nonsense argument that more guns/concealed carry permits are the answer, as there is no recorded incident of an armed civilian thwarting a mass shooting.

Finally, while I agree with those who wish we had better, more affordable, more accessible mental health services for everyone, I firmly believe the first, most important step is to get these weapons off our streets.

Thank you, and best regards,

Mari Passananti
Mom to a 3-year-old

cc: Mr. Speaker Boehner
Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Mike Capuano
Sen. Harry Reid
Sen. Mitch McConnell
Sen. John Kerry
Sen. Scott Brown
Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The plan, what happens and how to change it

This morning I heard a twenty-six-year old woman earnestly explaining her Life Plan. She's ambitious and high energy. She's considering law school, training for a marathon, debating marriage to a medium term boyfriend, and she adamantly, definitely wants two children—before she turns 31.

She wants the children to be twins, because she doesn't want to waste more than a year of the next decade (her best career ramp up decade, she's smart enough to realize) on pregnancy. She wants to work part time when her kids are small, then go great guns as soon as they hit kindergarten.

Listening to her took me back to the days before I realized that there's the plan.

And then there's what happens.

I think I understood this concept by my early thirties, but I've only embraced it more recently.

Of course there's no point in telling this to someone fifteen years younger. I'd only be raining on her parade.

Or is there?

I almost wish someone slightly older, but not old enough to be from my parents' age cohort, had sat me down and spelled out an uncomfortable biological truth: a woman's best years for starting a family coincide with her best years for establishing a career. Even if you don't plan for this inconvenient truth, it's a good thing to understand it.

Put differently, it's sub-ideal to put in five years in the career world, opt out to have kids, and expect to re-enter your old professional life when your youngest child marches off to elementary school. For most of us, the jobs we left just won't be there after a multi-year gap. And even if your old job is there, its scheduling demands may not be compatible with your life's new realities.

I've stopped counting the number of highly educated (i.e. Master's Degree or higher) women I know who have reluctantly left interesting, lucrative careers because their employers can't make part time or flex time arrangements work. When part time means thirty-five hours or more a week, that presents a logistical problem for most moms.

I've also stopped counting the number of women I know who put off starting a family (despite having stable relationships and decent financial footing), only to have their entire lives taken over by the Great Fertility Project. It's hard to be taken seriously at work when you slip out to medical appointments almost every day for months (or years) on end.

No, that's absolutely not fair, but it's the way it is.

Then, because we're older when we have kids, many of us face the prospect of caring for elderly relatives at the same time we're caring for toddlers. Because, yeah, young woman from the gym, you might as well know now that mom and dad's health crises are likely to be your problem time suck scheduling and financial challenge, because of your sex.

Women, particularly those in the "helping" professions (e.g., teachers, counselors, social workers, physician's assistants, specialized nurses, etc.) do the math and realize that their take home pay washes with the cost of hiring child care. Some bite the bullet and go back for adult interaction or intellectual challenge, but it's not practical for too many of us.

Those who work in law or financial services or scientific research routinely clock sixty-plus hour work weeks. Many women I know in these sectors went back to work after having children with promises of part-time schedules that vaporized forever with the first work "emergency."

I'm going to go out on a limb with this prediction: Staid employers in the boys' club professions will not truly accommodate working moms until they're forced to do so. Too much of the "she's taking a place that could have gone to a man" mentality still lurks in the executive suites.

When I was twenty-six and a third year law student, I figured these issues would sort themselves out. Female employees would force change from within. Bosses would become more enlightened by the time my friends and I faced the career-kids pickle. Women would rise to C-level jobs in huge numbers.

Hasn't happened.

Maybe, for the woman from this morning, her generation will succeed where mine has fallen short.

But the older I get, the more I subscribe to Anne Marie Slaughter's school of thought.  She eloquently spells out the case for top down change in how we think about work-life policy.

Her thesis: the American workplace will work for women when women start calling more of the shots in government. You can call me sexist, but I believe that family-friendliness remains a women's issue. Despite the growing number of stay at home dads and breadwinner moms, for most families the woman is the one responsible for the day to day, minute by minute needs of the children. She's the one the school calls when Junior vomits. She's the one who "figures it out" during school vacations. She's the one responsible for the 4 o'clock soccer shuffle and other activities logistics.

I've got a suggestion for the thousands of smart, highly educated career women I know who took maybe ten years off to raise babies, only to find the door of the old corporate suite slammed shut in their faces:


The incoming United States Senate will have twenty women: a record, but still a dismal, pathetic, ridiculous showing. Imagine if it had instead, fifty or sixty women. Imagine if the Supreme Court had five women justices instead of three. Imagine if just half the men in the House (many of whom have never worked outside politics) were replaced by women, moms with real careers under their belts.

Something tells me that a government stacked with women representatives would look at questions as diverse as our embarrassing national education system, healthcare cost control, child care, aging, parental leave, and wage and hour legislation with fresh eyes.

Women don't come near unanimous agreement on how to best handle any of these issues, but they bring perspective from the trenches.

To present just one example: I suspect a woman legislator, in most cases, is going to have an easier time than her male counterparts grasping why having millions of women working multiple part time jobs for poverty wages while attempting to parent young children, who subsequently go un- or under-supervised, isn't in the long term national best interest, even if it's good for some big box store's bottom line.

Yeah, yeah, maybe people shouldn't have kids they can't afford, but what most moms I know understand, and what too many old male politicians can't seem to grasp, is that in social policy, you deal with the problem you have, not with the problem you wish you had.

I'm not considering a future in politics.  My second novel comes out in a few weeks, and I'm working on a third. I spend plenty of time with the Grape. But I'm also smart enough to know that I'm an aberration, one of the lucky few who gets to do what she loves.

But to the many professional women I know who miss the work force and find themselves unable to pick up where they left off:

If you decide to run for office, I promise to work my tail off to help you win.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Toddler Sarcasm

One of the many things nobody tells you before you have a kid is that certain simple tasks, such as exiting the house at a prescribed time several mornings per week, become exponentially more challenging when you must propel out that door in the company of a small child.

This doesn't apply only to infants, though when the Grape was one and a half, I'd congratulate myself if we managed to get outside to walk the dog in under forty-five minutes. It was a very snowy winter, which meant Lila the Dog needed mushing boots. Not because we were training for the Iditarod, but because whatever budget cuts the City of Boston maybe implementing, they salt the sidewalks with near drunken exuberance.

Wussy pants Arkansas Dog can't abide salt, and I couldn't push the stroller (and/or drag the sled) and carry eighty pounds of canine. And the Grape, while not adept at running in snow boots, fought like a pissed off Tazmanian Devil whenever I tried to wrestle him into his snowsuit.

Getting myself, and the Grape, layered and bundled for subzero cold, without either of us breaking an immune-compromising sweat, while simultaneously applying mushing boots to Lila in a timeframe that didn't allow her an opportunity to remove them before propelling outdoors, was a feat I began practicing in November and perfected sometime around March. Yes, I'm still kind of proud of that. And yes, I was always a sweat ball by the time we made it to the patio.

Exhausting? Yes.

But ultimately easier than what I face this winter: copious helpings of toddler sarcasm and meltdown, served up on a roughly alternating schedule.

The Grape doesn't like doing things on any schedule but his own. I get it. I'm kind of the same way (hence I work for myself). But some things, like school drop off, wait for no tot.

Roughly three out of four mornings, my sweet angel throws a monster tantrum over one or more of the following: getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing hair and/or leaving house. My position is simple: I should not need to pin the screaming, flailing child between my knees to get a shirt on his person.

He flails, he wails, he throws his body onto the floor in a cartoon-like matter that's so over the top it would be funny if he weren't my kid. He protests, for exactly half the trip, that he DOES. NOT. WANT. TO. GO. TO. SCHOOL.

Then we make the turn onto Dartmouth Street and he sees the school, three blocks away. He wipes his tears, whips his halo out of his coat pocket, places it firmly about his head and gleefully cheers, "My school! I. LOVE. SCHOOL!!!"

I've tried every carrot and stick known to modern, progressive, retro and regressive parenting.

Nothing works.

And then, about once a week, the Grape is an angel about the morning shuffle.

This morning, I mentioned at breakfast how happy I was that he was being good. I piled it on, told him Santa was happy, too. We went about the rest of the routine in an organized and peaceful fashion. As were about to leave the house, the Grape asked, "Aren't you going to put on make-up?"

Evidently my kid is embarrassed that his mom doesn't look like a fashion plate at drop off.  I bit my tongue, resisted the urge to inform him that most mornings I don't have time to do much more than brush my teeth because he's such an $#*@ demon child.

Then, as left the house patio, and we weren't even discussing the morning's behavior, the Grape comes out with, "You're welcome."

"What?" I asked over my shoulder, as I locked the door.

"I was good this morning. You're welcome."

I'd laugh it off it weren't part of a pattern. For weeks, we've been trying to get one decent, wintery snapshot of the Grape and his dog to print on holiday cards. Obviously this is a time sensitive task. After staring hopelessly at the photo library on my laptop for something serviceable, I decided all the good shots were too summery.  R. and I tried, three weekends running, to get the Holiday Picture. We chose times when the Grape was well rested, well exercised and armed with a full belly.

Three weekends in a row, he lost it as soon as the camera came out. The Grape hates having his picture taken. (He loves viewing photos of himself, and to date he apparently isn't smart enough to realize one must take the photo before looking at it.)

He scowled, he howled, he frowned and he grimaced. If he had possessed the vocabulary to tell me where to stick the camera, he would have done so.

ME (smiling, calm and bright in face of meltdown): "Santa wants a nice holiday photo. Don't you want to send Santa a nice holiday photo?"

GRAPE: "Santa gets a lot of mail."

What the f--- am I supposed to do with that? After an hour of begging, bribing, threatening, and crying (yes, me, too), I seriously contemplated sending out our Happy Holidays message with a photo entitled: Meltdown Next to Dog Butt.

I decided I could send that to friends, but perhaps not to elderly relations with whom we correspond once a year.

We went indoors, consulted the calendar (already December), and regrouped. We tried again, and finally the Grape decided to play along. Our 2012 card isn't anything to write home about. It won't win any design awards. Most of my friends won't believe it represents almost eight hours of effort over several days.

When I showed the Grape the proof, and told him how happy Santa and I were that he cooperated for such a nice, cheerful holiday photo, he shrugged and told me, "You're welcome."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Naughty. Nice. Indifferent?

The Grape is old enough to understand that elves aren't the indentured toymakers portrayed in too many Christmas specials and holiday ads.

Nope. He knows the truth. Or at least the truth according to my family's tradition: the elfin beings are highly effective agents of espionage.

They could be lurking anywhere, indoors or out, at any hour. Just because the Grape cannot see one personified on a shelf doesn't mean they aren't watching and taking copious notes for Santa.

They see him when he's melting down over nothing, like this morning, when I made him walk (gasp!) three blocks, because we had a large, fragile and unwieldy package to be mailed in the stroller. (It was another fine parenting moment, wherein I just hoped to arrive home before a passerby called CPS. God knows it's probably criminal to make your kid use his legs against his will these days. Aside to neighbors: the Grape's arm evidently stays in its socket no matter how many blocks I haul his resistant, boneless, howling form. Don't worry.)

Or yesterday, when he pitched an epic hissy fit over getting dressed. And another over removing his coat.  Or earlier this morning, when he shrieked at Lucy the Kitten for daring to step near his trains.

When faced with a beastly display of three-year-old defiance, I attempt to remain calm and ask, "Are you being naughty or nice? Because nice kids get presents from Santa."

If he's not beside himself, he'll bleat, "I want to be nice!" Or, more to the point, "I want presents."

"Well, then you have to be good."

"I want to be good," he repeats for emphasis, and continues melting down.

I strongly suspect that he thinks the whole thing is BS. Not about the elves, or the big man in red, or the magic reindeer. He buys all that, hook, line and sinker.

It's the nature of the transaction I can't manage to sell. The idea that presents aren't a quid pro quo, but rather a contingent reward that depends on good behavior.

Because obviously they're not. Even if I wanted to declare war on gifts (I don't), the Grape has two fully functional sets of grandparents who will over-buy for the little guy whether he's angelic or demonic in these weeks of the pre-Christmas home stretch.

Christmas will come just the same.

As it should.

Or perhaps the Grape figures the good and bad antics will wash, because he has plenty of angelic moments, too. Mostly at school, where his halo is always firmly affixed above his blond locks. But also at home. Sometimes he's so sweet and cute it's impossible to believe he's the same kid who pushes my buttons so adeptly. He likes holding hands and gazing at the moon. Reading stories to Lila the Dog. Singing songs at his little piano. Snuggling on the couch because that's what he feels like doing and whatever else can wait.

He must figure the elves notice all these harmonious moments, that they'll cancel out the unpleasant episodes that punctuate my days. In kid world, that's probably the right math. I'm still steamed over this morning's tantrum, but to the Grape, it's ancient history. Totally frigging finito.

Just as finito as my fantasy of extorting a month of exemplary behavior through dire warnings of elfin espionage.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What if I have a wimpy indoor kid?

There's a November chill in the air here in Boston. We've started waking up to frosty mornings and the last of the foliage falling from the trees. It's not winter yet; the sun still warms things up into the fifties most days. The Grape asks me, almost every night, when we'll get a Big Snow.

He's madly, deeply in love with the concept of a record snowfall.

He has no idea what he's wishing for.

We got bupkes last winter—one measly "snow event" that provided barely enough of the white stuff for two mornings of sledding. And by mornings, I mean the hour between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., at which point I realized we have a problem.

The Grape loathes cold weather.

Hates it.

Asks for mittens and a hat when it's fifty-five degrees outside.

Pleads with me to stop the wind from blowing in his face. (I know he won't think I have that kind of power much longer, so perhaps I should shut up and enjoy it.)

Demands to know why we cannot immediately stop whatever we're doing and board a flight to Bermuda.

I don't know where my little thin-skinned cold weather wimp comes from. I like winter. I come from a long line of winter people. My mother was a huge believer in the benefits of the outdoors. I could count on my fingers the number of days in any given year she pronounced the weather too inclement for outside play.

And yes, we lived in New England.

In elementary school, my brother and I owned enough foul weather gear to survive a North Atlantic crossing.

In a row boat.

And no, our present pickle has nothing to do with lack of preparedness. The Grape has layers and layers of first rate winter clothing to insulate every inch of his precious person from the elements.

Keeping with family tradition, I did my best to ensure that the Grape was a winterized infant. Like most Finnish kids, he took long naps snug in his carriage on some bitterly cold days. Outside was the only place my kid ever slept like a champ. I ignored incredulous glances from nosy strangers and congratulated myself on being off to a promising start.

This was important to me, because before the Grape joined us some three plus years ago, I was an avid skier. I'd like to get the Grape on skis this year. I have this idea in my head that skiing is a fun, outdoor activity the whole family can do together for many years to come, and I confess I've been looking at a good deal of snowy travel porn lately.

One of my friends remarked years ago that when kids turn three, winter starts getting fun again. They're finally coordinated enough to remain upright while wearing boots in a snowbank, and old enough to follow directions in ski school. Active vacations are no longer held hostage by the demands of an infant's onerous sleeping and eating schedule.

Still, I fret.

Am I doomed to have one of those whiny indoor kids who only wants to drink hot chocolate by the fire?

I also fear that skiing, like the Grape's earliest sledding experiences, will work out better in theory than in practice.

Yet hope springs eternal. Maybe if the Grape sees other kids flying down the bunny hill, smiling, laughing, begging to go again, he won't notice his hands are cold, his ankles are stuck in a not-quite upright and locked position, and his nose is frozen. Peer pressure is a marvelous motivator.

And if all else fails, we can always try to bribe him with hot chocolate.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Surprise! (Not)

The only thing that surprises me about Tuesday night's election is the giant number of older white men, including the failed GOP nominee himself, who seem genuinely, deeply shocked that their guy lost got shellacked.

The talking heads will spend the next several days pontificating, but ultimately only two reasons matter.

First, Romney was a super crappy nominee. He exhibited four fatal flaws, the first three of which might have been within the campaign's ability to control had they wised up to the problem early.

1. Mitt Romney is a liar with no modern equal, even by the lax standards we allow for politicians. His relationship with the truth bordered on the pathological. This is not a matter of debate. He was fact checked throughout his campaign by various watchdog groups (and the chairmen of GM and Chrysler).

2. He embraced a misogynist agenda and got in bed with anti-choice zealots such as his running mate. Be warned: A national politician chips away at abortion access at his peril. On Wednesday morning, Romney was still sulking that he doesn't oppose "all" abortion and contraception. The women of America don't give a damn about his personal views on the pill. A majority of women view any attempt to rollback access to reproductive health services as an assault on our civil liberties and we're not having it. Romney also did himself no favors by refusing to embrace equal pay laws.

3. He told the fastest growing segment of the American population to fuck themselves self deport.

4. Nobody liked the guy. He never broke 48% in a swing state. His own party flirted with Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum before settling for Mitt. Simply put, his personality sucks and that counts when you run for president. The long primary season saved the Obama campaign lots of cash. Despite what the folks on Fox tell you, the Republican field painted Romney as a soulless "vulture capitalist." Sheldon Adelson financed the vicious movie-length attack "King of Bain." An already unappetizing nominee came out of the primary process bruised and bloodied.  

Second, President Obama inspires people. (Repeat as needed to internalize this fact.)

I spent election day as a volunteer with Obama for America in New Hampshire. In Manchester, I saw literally hundreds of volunteers, many of them students voting for the first time.  All of them were inspired by President Obama and his agenda to put in eleven to sixteen hour days for no pay. The campaign had similar war rooms set up in every medium to major town in every swing state. 

The Obama volunteer army turned out tens of thousands of voters who might have otherwise stayed home. All the ads and robocalls money can buy couldn't compete with that kind of ground game. Mitt Romney, even in his progressive 1994 incarnation, could have never inspired that kind of free labor force to help pull him over the finish line. Kids can smell a fake.

Because the GOP establishment and the nominee had difficulty processing any of these obvious factors, they kept the nation waiting almost two hours for a concession while they re-did Ann Romney's makeup (which was apparently ruined by shock-induced bawling).

Naturally, I'm delighted we've seen the last of Mitt and his dreadful wife.

But I'm even more excited about President Obama's second term. 

Mr. President, I hope you go big. 

Really, really big. 

You can do it. You have the most progressive Senate in decades. It's time to carpe diem.

Please pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants and that keeps families together here in the U.S. Yes, I mean amnesty. 

Please tackle climate change, and not just by building cleaner cars in Detroit, but also by pushing though real controls on carbon emissions.

Please pass meaningful tax reform. Tuesday's exit polls show a huge mandate on this issue. Let's ease the tax burden on those who work for a living, and jack the capital gains rate up above the top marginal income rate. This would close the hedge fund/private equity fund managers' loophole with a minimum of new legislation. 

While you're at it, please also pass a law to make investment by Americans in offshore blocker corporations, which supposedly exist for the sole purpose of spurring investment in the U.S. by foreigners, a felony. 

And please folks, spare me the nonsense about taxing the job creators. I know plenty of rich people. When rich people get a tax break, they sock the money away for themselves and their kids. They only create jobs when their businesses have enough excess customers to necessitate hiring more help. The best way to insure businesses have customers is to make sure the middle class has more money; they'll actually spend the extra cash on goods and services. On a related note, Mr. President, it seems like a good time to raise the minimum wage.

For those of you still puzzled by Romney's shellacking, and confused about why Mr. Obama inspires such adoration among so many Americans, I highly recommend this clip. It's longish at sixteen minutes, and the last segment (about our democracy's need for two functional parties) is the best part. So, rich, angry white guys, watch, listen, and maybe you can avoid unwelcome (332-206) surprises in the future.

There. All done with Mitt Romney. Forever. HURRAH!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Far Better Off

I have a pre-existing condition. So does the Grape. I have friends who are cancer survivors. I know more diabetes patients than I can count. I've reached the age where many parents of friends suffer from ailments large and small.

The Grape and I are lucky. We live in Massachusetts, where we have Romneycare, the legislative model for Obamacare, which will take effect nationwide in 2014. Insurers cannot deny us coverage because of our medical histories. Thanks to Obamacare, kids nationwide already enjoy the same protection from discrimination. 

I believe access to health care is a civil right, and that one of the most fundamental functions of government is to protect the public health. I think it's unconscionable that a country as rich as America routinely drives its citizens to bankruptcy because they can't afford health insurance. It's equally unconscionable that countless American children go without basic vaccinations and preventive care, and that our children die before age five in far greater numbers than their counterparts in the rest of the Western world. Obamacare will make progress on both fronts by covering basic preventive care for all children.

Obamacare isn't perfect. Like many progressives, I wish it included a single payer option. I wish it contained more aggressive cost controls. But I can't, to save my life, figure out why the individual mandate is the least bit controversial among conservatives. The mandate was, after all, a Republican idea, first drafted by the late Senator John Chaffee, and designed as a way to avoid a public option. (In exchange for accepting everyone regardless of medical history, the private insurance companies get millions more customers.)

But whatever its imperfections, Obamacare will provide basic health coverage to tens of millions of citizens who would otherwise go without. It stops insurance companies from discriminating based on sex. It will ease the burden on the country's overtaxed emergency rooms: the only health care option for uninsured adults prior to Obamacare's full implementation 2014. Here in Massachusetts, ER usage as a primary care option is down as a result of Romneycare.

Aside: What kind of governor runs around the country disowning his sole legislative achievement anyway? (Answer: The shifty, tricky kind.) I'm actually not that concerned about Romney's ridiculous "repeal and replace" BS.  As the primary architect of Romneycare (and Obamacare), Romney knows the insurance companies will never cover all persons with pre-existing conditions unless they get the guarantee of more customers provided by the mandate. Not rocket science. Hence, you can't repeal the federal mandate and keep the "good parts," as Romney's campaign advisors have grudgingly admitted.

And whatever chest thumping certain governors may indulge in during the election cycle (about rejecting federal aid), I wager that not one will turn down the windfall of extra Medicaid dollars when crunch times comes. After all, seniors vote, and a full two-thirds of nursing home patients use Medicaid to pay.

But healthcare isn't the only measure by which our family is better off than we were four years ago. 

Like about half of American households, we have investments in the stock market. Nothing fancy, mostly mutual funds like many citizens have in their retirement accounts. They're all way up from four years ago.

R. works in high end residential real estate development and he was job hunting, both in 2009 and in 2012. 

2009 was tough going. Brutal, actually. Offers were few and far between, and universally of lesser quality than his prior position. 

Not so in 2012. Multiple offers, all a step up by multiple metrics. When high end real estate developers feel bullish, it says to me that the economy is on the right path. The monthly jobs reports agree.

Hurricane Sandy missed us here in Boston, but I'm hopeful the storm finally got people talking about climate change. I trust President Obama to push for cleaner cars and sensible environmental legislation—which benefits the public health and safety. The president who saved the Detroit auto industry has a golden opportunity to push the building of cleaner cars in America, for both the domestic and export markets. 

President Obama inherited two wars. He ended one and is winding down the other. Far too many soldiers have been deployed three, four, even five times. They come home to an underfunded, overwhelmed VA. Some have traumatic brain injuries that will never heal, that make them unable to work, and in some sad cases, a danger to themselves or others. Military suicides are up to one per day. The Romney/Ryan budget would gut the VA at a time when we ought to be stepping up services for our veterans.

Yet Romney, the ultimate despicable chicken hawk, who deferred Vietnam service four times to gallivant around Paris on a mission during which he made zero converts, appears eager to embark on another wholly elective war.  I have a proposal, one I don't make lightly as the mother of a son: If America is to pursue a policy of first-strike wars, then perhaps we need to revisit the political kryptonite that is the draft. Our volunteer military is stretched beyond reason. The same soldiers (and their families) pay the human toll of war over and over again. 

But if we bring about a draft, we need a draft where every citizen has skin in the game. No more college deferrals, and certainly no more religious deferrals.

Make you uneasy? Me too. Don't vote for the chicken hawks.

I trust President Obama to continue a sensible Middle East policy. The economic sanctions against the Iranian government are working. Our allies are on board. Obama managed a successful intervention in Libya that helped remove one of the most hostile regimes on the planet. Israel's largest paper states unequivocally that a second Obama term would be good for Israel.

I could keep going, but I'll rest my case. I hope I've answered the criticisms in my mail that I'm a one issue voter. I do place great weight on women's rights, but I follow the other news too. 

Which means that when I vote tomorrow, I won't just be casting a fear and loathing vote against Mr. Romney and his backward thinking on women's rights. 

I'll be enthusiastically supporting President Obama on a broad spectrum of issues important to my family and my country.


Friday, November 2, 2012

1978 Roaring Back at Me

In 1978, my parents moved us into the house they still occupy on a relatively rural street in southern Rhode Island. I was five years old.

Shortly after our move, my parents attended some cocktail party where they met one of their new neighbors for the first time. The man, now deceased, was probably twenty years their senior and had grown up on the same plot of land he then occupied. He marched up to my father and said, "We don't want your kind on this street." ("Our kind," in his view, meant Italians.)

I heard the remark repeated because I was eavesdropping on my mom the next day. I knew something was up, because noise carried in our new house and I'd heard my parents come home, Dad in a major huff.

I remember vividly, that while I didn't totally understand the thrust of the comment, I grasped that this man didn't like us because we were different from him. My five-year-old brain also decided I shouldn't ask my parents about what I'd overheard. Clearly there was something shameful going on, something not meant for my kindergarten age ears.

And clearly, our grouchy neighbor was just going to have to deal, since we had no plans to move again, or change our ethnicity. I shrugged it off as "grown up stuff."

Nine years later, the old comment reared its ugly head when the man's brother, a class act nothing like his boorish sibling next door, flagged me down as I was traversing his largish farm on my pony, and sincerely apologized for "any unpleasantness my brother may have ever caused you or your folks."

I stampeded home and asked about that long ago party. Family legend now states that Dad told the guy to do something biologically impossible to himself. The guy then tried to regroup by telling my mom, who comes from Finland, that she was a "desirable immigrant."

I didn't know the word "bigot" in 1978, but I understood its gist: a bigot is anyone who discriminates against someone else based on a characteristic that person cannot control. Race. Ethnicity. Sex. Sexual orientation. Health/Disability.

I hadn't thought about the "your kind" comment for years, but the election season drew it back from the recesses of my memory. Why? Because it dawned on me, perhaps a month ago, that this election is about civil rights.  And a vote for the GOP ticket, however qualified with excuses about taxes or regulatory policy, is a vote for bigotry.

Most overtly against women and against gay citizens.

But also against racial minorities.

I'm lucky. In four decades, that's the only time I've been told to go away, that I don't belong somewhere, because of my ethnic background. Discrimination against Italians is not rampant in our society. Sadly, I cannot say the same for:

Women: Mitt Romney has yet to take a position on the Lilly Ledbetter Act: crucial legislation that guarantees equal pay for women in the workforce. In yesterday's endorsement of President Obama, Mike Bloomberg cited climate change, but also referred to "the kind of world I'd like to leave for my daughters." Anyone's daughter should have the same opportunities in America as my son. Period.

Romney is on the record saying he'd "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, which provides health services and family planning assistance to millions of women and families. He's promised to nominate justices in the mold of arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, a move that would imperil Roe v. Wade.  He's said he'd be "delighted" to sign legislation outlawing all abortions, and that he'd "absolutely" support a federal personhood statute, such as the failed attempt championed by his running mate, which would have banned abortions, IVF, and many forms of contraception. He may not come out and say he's against contraception, but his on-the-record remarks leave no doubt the Mitt has no issue with efforts to limit access to contraceptives.

"He wants to take women back to 1950's nun school," my friend M., a veteran of such an institution, said last week. "Back then, girls were told we were only fit for three careers: nursing, teaching or secretarial work. We were told we would leave work when we got married, because we'd be busy with babies."

Contraception is an economic issue. Every woman and every employer knows that if a woman cannot control her fertility, she cannot compete on equal footing with men in the workforce. Period.

And then there's rape. I cannot believe it's 2012 and we're discussing rape in national politics, but consider this: the ONLY candidate for Senate for whom the GOP nominee made a video endorsement is Richard Mourdock. Yup, Mourdock. The rapist's baby "is a gift from God" guy. This isn't the Moderate Mitt of so many swing voters' fantasies. This is Hard Right into Crazy Town Mitt. And frankly, if Mitt is going to run around saying he personally supports abortion access for rape victims, regardless of what his party thinks, I'd like to know how that exemption would work, in administrative terms.

Gay people: Romney's official website says the candidate supports a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Let's put aside the fact that constitutional amendments are very, very, very expensive. And the fact that it's hard to imagine anything less American than an amendment codifying bigotry.

I could keep going, but fellow author Kergan Edwards-Stout said everything that needed to be said (better than I could) in his bold and brilliant piece "Please De-Friend Me." Read it and share it.

Racial minorities: Anyone who thinks we live in a post-racial society, please Google racist attacks on the president and get back to me. Caution: not for the faint of heart. Romney is smart enough not to talk about race, but that hasn't stopped some of his surrogates from stooping into the gutter.

I ran into a woman my mom's age at the gym. She was wearing a Romney/Ryan T-shirt. I guess I did an inadvertent double take, as I've never seen one of those in real life before.

In response to my puzzled pause, she grinned like a criminally insane individual. So I went there.

Me, big smile, voice as neutral as possible: "Why do you like Romney?"

Her, without missing a beat: "Oh, I don't really like Romney, but anyone is better than Obama."

Me: "Why's that?"

Her: "I just don't like him."

Me, ignoring inner voice that is screaming, walk away: "What don't you like about him?"

Her, with less certainty: "I just don't like him. He doesn't look presidential."

Me: "I'm going to suggest that you consider the possibility that you might be a racist."

Her: Mouth opens, nothing comes out, mouth clamps shut.

Did I change her mind? Of course not. But in my mind, if you wear a campaign shirt, the public can reasonably conclude you have enthusiasm for your candidate. Maybe if you're going to wear the shirt, you could think of one thing you like about your guy.

It shouldn't be hard. I'll demonstrate. Here are some things I really like about President Obama:

President Obama believes in equal opportunity for all Americans. He will protect my right to choose, and my right to earn as much as a man. He'll appoint progressive judges who share my world view. He believes in marriage equality. He believes health care is a civil right (more on this later in the weekend), and that the Grape and I should not be denied coverage because we have pre-existing conditions.  He believes that folks like Mitt Romney (who happens to be in the top one percent of the top one percent) should pay more taxes than folks who work for a living. He believes FEMA plays a critical role in disaster relief and that climate change is real. He believes we need sensible regulation to protect us from Charlatans like the men who ran Enron, or  from fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, or from other shysters who smirk at us and say, "You people don't need the details. Just trust me."

I could keep going, but I think I've made my point regarding the wearing of campaign clothing. Which is why I'll feel confident about wearing it when I volunteer for Obama for America on Election Day.

And I'll be thinking of how far we've come since the reality of bigotry first crossed my radar in 1978, and how far we still have to go.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Things That Go Bump in the Night

The Grape sleepwalks.

It's kind of a nightmare. Not for him; he's not the least bit terrified of his nocturnal sojourns around the apartment. It's a nightmare for the rest of us. Every night for several weeks, R. and I have woken, multiple times most nights, to calls of "Stuck! Stuck!"

The Grape may not be awake, but once he's marched himself into a corner, or into the bathtub, or face first into an armchair, he's coherent enough to realize his pickle (at least subconsciously). We bolt to his side, marvel ("He really is asleep!?"), and steer the somnolent Grape back to bed, where if we're lucky, he remains until daybreak.

I understand sleep walking is a phase, it's not all that rare, and there's nothing to be done. We need to wait it out and hope it stops.

"When?" I asked the pediatrician this week.

"Usually by high school," she says, with a smile somewhere between encouraging and mocking.


Note to self: Stop talking about sacking the doctor and get it done already.

We've taken all the well-duh actions other parents ask us if we've considered. When the Grape took his second nighttime stroll, R. and I realized we didn't dream the first sleep walking incident. Our apartment is now Fort Knox. The Grape may wander, but he's not getting as far as the great outdoors. Or even the building's common hallway. We installed a really noisy knob on his door. If he leaves the bedroom, we hear him well before he can pitch himself down the stairs.

The animals get into the act, too.

Lucy the Kitten takes the Grape's sleep walking as some kind of secret signal to rouse herself and transform into Crazy Cat, a wild-eyed maniac who charges up and down the stairs like her life might depend on making maximum noise. Lila the Dog reluctantly hauls herself from bed and paces the hallway, panting and fretting over her charge. The Grape maybe oblivious to his unnerving behavior, but he's giving the rest of us agita.

The main issue with the Grape's sleep walking isn't that we need to shepherd him back to bed, or that we need to calm the menagerie after doing so. It's that I'm a lousy sleeper, and have been my entire adult life.

Once I'm up, I'm awake, whether it's a civilized hour or not.

I seethe in jealousy of those people who can pass out as soon as their heads hit pillows. The ones who can deal with a minor interruption and return to bed to wake rested and ready to rock. It's so bad that if I could magically change one thing about myself, I wouldn't wish for less belly or more height, less angst or more charm.

I'd use my wish to turn myself into a good sleeper. Or better: I'd morph into one of those rarified creatures who thrives on three or four hours a night.

Since the Grape's sleep walking phase started, I've averaged less than five hours a night—not nearly enough for my sleep dependent body. I feel like we have a newborn in the house, because I can't shake that bone tired feeling that affects everything in our day to day lives.

Chronic sleep deprivation makes me less  productive. I make sloppy mistakes and forget things. I have a shorter fuse and less enthusiasm. All of which feels even worse because we're completely in the dark as to when we might expect this latest little odyssey to end.

I'm hopeful (for no articulable reason) that one night in the very near future, the Grape will just stop strolling while a-snooze. Because the sunken eyed, dark circled ghoulish look I've been sporting goes out of fashion in under a week.

On that note, happy Halloween. May your little goblins not go bump in the night.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blogging from the Left Coast

Dear Readers:

I'm delighted to be a guest at the incredible Style Substance Soul website today. The wonderful women who run the site let me write about two topics I love: the relationship between contemporary fiction and socio-political discourse, AND my upcoming second novel The K Street Affair.

I hope you'll surf over and take a look. Thank you, and happy weekend.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Publish the names of men who pay for sex

I'm often surprised by some of the news stories that gain national traction, although maybe I shouldn't be. Any local scandal involving sex and money probably stands an even money chance of grabbing headlines from coast to coast.

So maybe it's not the stories, but the angles I find perplexing. Today, all over the morning shows and the blogosphere, legal experts of varying pedigree are engaged in handwringing over whether or not a court in the lovely little town of Kennebunk, Maine did the right thing by allowing the police department to publish a list of men arrested for soliciting sex from a prostitute who happened to moonlight as a Zumba instructor.

Of course the police should publish the johns' names. 

Why should an arrest for solicitation of sex be treated any differently from any other arrest? If law enforcement has probable cause to arrest and charge the suspect, why not publicize that information?

Look at any police beat column in any local paper. You'll find names, ages and addresses of citizens arrested and charged with various offenses, ranging from driving while intoxicated to simple assault to breaking and entering to possession of marijuana. Sometimes you'll even see their occupations.

Why not treat johns the same way?

Many of the talking heads on television, along with many in the defense bar, say that publishing the names of johns causes damage to their reputations and families. There's an unappetizing, boys-will-be-boys flavor to such arguments.

Details remain incomplete in the Kennebunk case, but some of the johns are rumored to be members of law enforcement, which if true, could explain local zeal for a cover up.

Perhaps these johns should have considered the potential fallout before committing their crimes.

Protecting those who pay for sex perpetuates the myth that most prostitutes are entrepreneurs— seductresses who tempt God fearing, unsuspecting family men off the straight and narrow. 

Sounds like Taliban reasoning to me. 

The thought of treating men who pay for sex like victims should shock our collective conscience. 

Why? A small percentage of prostitutes may indeed by entrepreneurs. But the vast majority are the real victims. There's a pervasive myth about women entering prostitution to afford drugs, but according to reputable studies, including those undertaken by the My Life, My Choice project here in Boston and GEMS in New York City, the average age a girl enters prostitution in New England is twelve.


Most of the child and teenage prostitutes are introduced to drugs by their pimps, the same men who sell them in online ads, beat them, isolate them, and traffic them across state lines to wherever great demand for paid sex exists (major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the recent RNC convention in Tampa, etc.). 

And guess what career options are open to a girl who spends her teens selling her body instead of attending school? Let alone one who's repeatedly jailed while the men who participate in her crime walk with a slap on the wrist and a sealed record. Aside: I believe anyone convicted of paying for sex with a minor should be required to register as a sex offender. The alleged prostitute in this case, Alexis Wright, is an adult, so the buying-sex-with-a-minor issue is not at play here.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for throwing the book at pimps, the only entrepreneurs in the majority of prostitution transactions.

But I'd love to see us rethink the entire jurisprudence of prostitution, by decriminalizing the actions of the prostitutes and prosecuting the johns far more zealously. As countries like Sweden that have gone this route have discovered, fines and the threat of public disgrace can go a long way to thwarting demand.

To that end, here is the Kennebunk Police Department's list of men charged with buying sex from a prostitute in the so-called Zumba scandal: Gary Bahlkow, Jens Bergen, Norman Crepeau, Joseph Cuetara, Kenneth Fairbanks, Donald Hill, Monie Hobbs, David Kline, Robert Labonte, Dale Madore, Paul Main, Harry McMann, Kevin Pagliccia, Claude Palmer, Philip Parker, Colin Powers, Clinton Ray, James Soule, John Verreault, James White, and Peter Wormell. 

More names will likely follow. 

Each accused john will have his day in court, just like any other citizen who finds him or herself charged with a crime. I wager we'll see many of them plead no contest. In any case, I hope the papers continue to cover the proceedings against these men, and I hope other jurisdictions will follow suit. Pay for sex, get your name in the paper.

Who knows? Perhaps a weekly column listing arrested johns would even save jobs by boosting straggling newspaper sales.

Monday, October 8, 2012

And on his farm he had a jumpy castle and a camel

Last week the Grape asked me where the farmer's market goes when it's not set up in Copley Square.

I told him the farmers pack up all the stuff they don't sell and go home to their farms.

He blinked at me, trying to process and failing.

I asked, "Where do you think the fruits and vegetables come from?"

"From the fruit and vegetable trucks," he said, with a sidelong glance implying he thought me somewhat limited.

On this gorgeous October Saturday, R. and I took the Grape on an outing to the nearest open-to-the-public farm we could find: a pick your own apple orchard whose website advertised farm animals as a side attraction.

We arrived to find a vast parking lot not unlike one you might encounter at an amusement park. "We're going to be parked in Dopey," R. said, as he navigated the rows, a reference to a far out corner of the lot in Disney World.

It turned out that everyone was parking in Dopey, because it cost an eye popping $14 a nose to set foot on the property. This struck me as crazy, perhaps because I grew up on a rural road where one could view all manner of livestock for free. And also because I've always assumed apples you pick yourself should be cheaper than ones harvested by others and trucked to the local grocer.

Seriously, though, I'm grudgingly okay with admission fees if charging them makes it feasible for the proprietor to keep substantial acreage so close to the city engaged in agriculture.

The cover charge included all manner of hayrides and other amusements for the Grape. It did not include the pony ride, a five dollar add-on featuring resigned but well-groomed shetlands spinning on a hot walker in an open sided shed.

He LOVED that unremarkable little pony ride. So much so that he asked if he could have a pony.

"What would you do with a pony?"

"Ride it to the aquarium," he said, with another withering look that clearly questioned my intelligence.

Because obviously an urban kid, who has no idea what ponies eat or where they sleep or how much space and maintenance they require, thinks such an arrangement would work out just fine. The pony could sleep next to Lila the Dog on its own memory foam pet bed.

The Grape had a blast on our fall farm outing, and I chalked the day up as a victory since he clearly learned that apples grow on trees rather than inside tractor trailers.

R. and I were pleased (and relieved) that he loved the actual apple picking part of the afternoon.

But he definitely went home with some wrong ideas about farms. The heifers, goats, geese, sheep and pigs on display looked more like someone's pets than anyone's livelihood. The featured critters were all incredibly cute examples of their respective species, and seemed ill suited for frank discussions regarding our place in the food chain.

The Grape also walked away with the impression that a farm is a sparkling clean and user friendly place (the trees were pruned in the espalier fashion to ensure easy access to abundant fruit for pint sized pickers). He also went home secure in the belief that farms feature jumpy castles, giant slides, lemonade stands, tractors dressed up like trains, and camels.

Yes, camels.

This last tidbit is especially problematic, since now that the Grape's version of Old MacDonald's farm will forevermore feature dromedaries, I need to figure out what noise the beasts emit. In my very limited experience, they do this unattractive thing between a bellow and a bray. And then they spit in your face for good measure.

Maybe I should just count myself lucky the Grape didn't come home begging for a camel of his own.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

You can't go back. Or can you?

For the past couple of months, the Grape (who is just north of three years old) has decided he wishes to be a baby.

At first I laughed and ignored his insistent pronouncements. All toddlers like to pretend. On any given day a preschooler could decide to be a child of the opposite sex, a dog, a cow, a rhinoceros, an astronaut, a sailor, a parent... You get the idea. Playing pretend forms the cornerstone of many children's games that are probably as old as childhood itself. "You be the teacher. I'll be the doctor," etc.

I am all about imaginary play. The Grape may be a sheltered only child, but he's not an unusually babyish kid. He has an excellent vocabulary, good motor control, and that irrepressible urge to insist on doing everything by himself. He can transition from one thing to the next without a freak out, and he's blessed with a near saintly attention span.

But this week, I've started wondering: What if the Grape isn't pulling my leg? He jumps into and out of all kinds of pretend roles throughout the course of a typical day at home or school. He is beginning to understand what's real and what's made up. He knows, when he measures my blood pressure with the cuff in his doctor kit, that whatever ailment I land with during the course of the game is in his head. And it's never something a bandaid can't fix.

The Grape has been telling me for the past couple of weeks that he wants to go back to the two-year-old room at school. At first I thought he might be homesick. We went to say hello to his old teachers and then proceeded to the three-year-old room, which is packed with his little friends. He likes these friends. He talks about how much fun they are all the time.

We said hi to the former teachers in the hallway a couple of times and then the Grape dropped the request. For about a week, he bounded happily into the three-year-old room. Until this week.

Since the weekend, he has insisted he wants to go back to the two-year-old room. He doesn't want to go to school if it means going to the three-year-old room, even though I remind him that he always tells me how much fun it was, and that I sometimes have to drag him away because he's so engrossed.

For example, I've told him to eat his dinner. He says, "Only if I can go back to the two-year-old room." He'll be tucked in for the night and ask if the next morning is a school day. If I say yes, he'll say he's going to the two-year-old room.


"It's fun there."

"Is it fun in the three-year-old room?"


"You said it was so fun this afternoon."

"I want the two-year-old room."

I try appealing to reason. "Are you a big boy?"

And fail: "No. I'm a baby. Not a big boy. I'm Mamma's little baby." He wedges his little self as close to me as possible. Score: Grape, alias Baby 1, Mamma 0

This morning the grumblings of the past few weeks came to a head. The Grape yelled from his bedroom that today would be two-year-old room day. I said we'll see. In exchange for nibbling at his breakfast, he extorted a promise that we could visit the two-year-old room when we arrived at the preschool.

He must have sensed I might renege, because he dragged his feet all the way to school, and reminded me at least twenty-three times that he was going to the two-year-old room.

Luckily, we ran into friends from the three-year-old room outside the school. I exhaled. He could stop playing at being a baby now. The Grape said hello to his pals, bounded inside with them, then pulled up short in the hallway. He grabbed my hand and walked the long way around into the two-year-old room (so we didn't cross his actual classroom on the way).

We said hello to his former teachers and I told the Grape it was time for Mamma to leave so he had to go to his own class now. I said his friends were waiting. "They might miss you," I added brightly.

"I. Am. Staying. Here." The Grape settled himself into the two-year-olds' kitchen area and started directing pretend cake making like he owned the place.

I moved to physically remove the Grape. He wailed. He went boneless like a protestor under arrest. The actual two-year-olds began to congregate, to gawk in mingled amusement and amazement at the spectacle escaped from the big kids' room.

One of the teachers said they'd return the Grape to the three-year-old room in ten or fifteen minutes. I planted a kiss on my little tyrant's forehead, excused myself and turned to go. "I'll see you later, in the three-year-old room," I said.

"Nope. I'll be here, Mamma."

The Grape's face was unmistakable: Grape 2, Mamma Zip.

I called R. on the way out. "Do you think the Grape likes his old teachers better?" he asked.

At first I suspected such an obvious situation, but I think we have more of a gestalt problem. The two-year-old room rhythm works for the Grape. They propel out to the playground or some adventure, then come back and do an activity, then lunch and a fairly long story/rest/nap time. The three-year-olds stay in school for an activity, then head outdoors, and after lunch, they also have downtime, but it's much shorter.

"The little princeling also demands a high level of service," I said to R. He likes the three teachers to one kid ratio in the two-year-old room. It jumps to about 5 to 1 (counting the student teacher) in his current classroom. The bigger tots are well-superivised but perhaps not fawned over in quite the same way as the babies.

"Can we switch him back?" R. asked, his two other lines clanging in the background.

I'm sure we could. Some folks find the school's director fearsome, but I very much appreciate her forthright, capable manner and regard her as quite approachable. She wouldn't dismiss the idea out of hand, especially since the Grape is the youngest in his class.

But I don't know that I want to make that request.

The Grape wouldn't grasp that he needs to pick a team; he can't flit from class to class depending on his mood each morning. He'd be separated from the kids he knows, the kids he was with last year (when I never heard a complaint about going to school).

And nothing against the legitimate two-year-olds, but they aren't as chatty as the Grape. He might get bored with their conversation, or worse, become that awful large mouthed kid that holds forth so nobody else can insert a word edgewise.

So here we are. Mentally in the three-year-old room, emotionally in the two-year-old room. Should the left brain or right win this one?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of The Lost Art of Conversation and Drivers Who Text

A new book called Alone Together, penned by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, argues that our children have lost the art of conversation, and that mobile devices are largely to blame.

Dr. Turkle surveyed hundreds of people in the course of her research, and her results were disheartening, though hardly difficult to believe. The average young adult fires off and receives 3,200 text messages a month. That adds up to hours spent hunched over small screens, fingers flying over tiny touch pads. Several eighteen-year-olds told Dr. Turkle they'd rather text than talk.

But it's not just the kids. Dr. Turkle's book recounts story after story of families doing "family things" together. Parents and kids are around the dinner table or at the shore, and every individual has mobile device in hand.

She even recounts instances of people observed texting at funerals. I might not have believed this a few years ago. Then I attended a wedding interrupted by the insidious chime of the iPhone's signature ring. The mother of the bride actually checked to see who was calling before silencing the thing.

Do we really need an MIT scientist to tell us this isn't healthy? Let alone rude?

Apparently, we do.

I was surprised to read the welcome letter for the Grape's little soccer team. It's really pre-soccer. They practice but don't play matches until next year. Or maybe even the year after that. Anyway, the coaches specified that the kids (ages 3 to 4) would not be allowed to use cell phones during the forty-five minute sessions. Is this the new normal? Do schools now send out similar communiques about how Junior is expected to refrain from texting during algebra class?

I imagine that children have always learned the fine art of conversation by observation and participation. If kids are checked into a phone or tablet when adults are talking, they're robbed of a valuable opportunity to grow socially.

Conversely, if the kids see the adults slap their phones next to their dinner forks when sitting down to a meal, what are they learning? Maybe I'm in the old-fashioned minority, but I firmly believe it's bad manners to dine with one person while furtively checking for overtures from another.

Similarly, children learn manners and patience by being a little bored once in a while. I cringe whenever I see the car commercial where one kid pities the other because his parents' minivan lacks a video system. Why should every ten minute errand feature entertainment? I think it's good for the little darlings to gaze at the world and contemplate life in short spurts. The Italians call it dolce far niente, literally the sweetness of doing nothing, and it's sorely lacking in modern society.

We're jittery and over stimulated and suffer, as a populace, from countless debilitating sleep disturbances. Could this be due, at least in part, to the fact that we're never, from a very young age, unplugged?

Maybe I'm a hypocrite, since I write a blog and use all manner of social media for social and business purposes. I check my email with my first cup of coffee in hand. But like the binge drinker who really, truly can stop any time, I can unplug. One of the best little perks of traveling overseas is the hiatus from screens and data. I turn off the data when I go on vacation (even the best international data plans are extortion) and I often leave my smart phone locked in the hotel safe for days on end. It feels great to step off the grid in this small way, and I do find myself more engaged in the moment.

And please, while we're on the topic of travel, don't send me hate mail about how your kid's iPad is a godsend on a long flight, because I agree. Certain situations, including and especially long intervals trapped on mass transit, call for extreme measures. If six hours of Dora are needed to get from here to London without sparking mutiny by fellow passengers, I understand and indeed applaud that.

But I think social/leisure time is different. I want my kid to think the guy texting while wading in the surf with his kids is not the greatest model for behavior. When dining, or meeting friends at the park or the beach or wherever, kids need to learn that the meal and company are the entertainment.

I understand dining with preschoolers can be painful. Today we met friends for lunch at a family friendly restaurant and had one of those meals wherein we just got through it. Everyone got fed, no major calamities occurred, but it wasn't really that much fun, because the kids were stir crazy and fidgety after a rainy weekend. They spent much of the meal squirming in the booth. Fortunately, it was a corner booth in the back and they succeeded in annoying no one nearly so much as their own parents.

Someone asked recently, "If it's a nice place, would you make an exception to the no video rule?"

No. Emphatically no, because I would never bring the Grape to a fine dining establishment,  because I think it's terribly inconsiderate of other patrons. People shelling out over thirty dollars an entree are paying for ambiance. Ambiance doesn't include a child riveted to a cartoon at the next table any more than it includes a screaming baby. Similarly, if parents of a tot can afford to eat in such venues, they can also afford a sitter. "But how is he supposed to practice all these social skills?" I've been asked by parents in the give him a video and shut him up camp.

That's easy: in family friendly eateries and in neighborhood bistros, during the blue hair and high chair hours before seven. Places where it's marginally okay to repeat and reinforce lessons such as "We never scream in restaurants."

I know I'm swimming upstream with my no device stance. I imagine the day will come when I'll issue the Grape a phone, as much for my convenience as for his entertainment and communication desires. I'm hopeful, though not convinced, that by then our society's collective love affair with our gadgets will have dialed down a notch.

Many states already ticket texting drivers, which is a good start. Perhaps when and if the hordes of helicopter parents among us start to think of perpetual iGadget usage as a health and safety problem, we'll see people of all ages starting to look up from their screens. If we modern parents are going to make our kids wear helmets on tricycles, it seems to me that we should also demand the teens and adults among us don't text while navigating busy intersections by car. Someone's kid could be in the cross walk. And a trike helmet doesn't do much against a speeding SUV.

I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's Not Always About the Boobs

This week's misdirected firestorm is brought to us by an assistant professor at American University. Assistant Professor Adrienne Pine showed up for the first day of class with her sick infant in tow. During the lecture, she breastfed the child.

The student paper picked up the story and ran with an entirely wrongheaded angle, accusing the professor of "lactivism," i.e. whipping out one's milk swollen breasts in public to make a political statement. I doubt, based on Ms. Pine's own statements that la leche league type activism was the professor's intent. (Note: If you click the link, you have to scroll down past the large and annoying ad to get to Ms. Pine's piece.)

The issue at AU isn't breastfeeding. It doesn't matter if Ms. Pine paused her work to breastfeed, mix a bottle or offer her little darling a swig of her iced coffee.

And while I think some professional decorum is nice in terms of which body parts one exposes on the job, I seriously doubt that any college student of either sex would be scarred by the brief sight of a breast. They've all seen plenty of boobs, I'm sure.

The relevant issues here are professionalism and to a lesser extent, child care.

What Ms. Pine did by bringing her child to work was grossly, unfathomably unprofessional. No professional does her best work while caring for a child. Any new mom knows that even the presence of a sleeping child is a minor distraction, because they can wake at any moment. Small children are unpredictable and have many needs. Their care is a full-time job unto itself; that's why day care providers and nannies have jobs.

Undergraduates at American University pay over $40,000 a year in tuition. They deserve the undivided attention of their teachers during pre-scheduled class times and office hours.

It doesn't matter if AU is, as Ms. Pine asserts, a family friendly employer.

Family friendliness doesn't require an employer to include an employee's family in the workplace. Here's a real world example: One of the teachers at the Grape's preschool had a baby last year. When she returned to work after maternity leave, the very family friendly preschool arranged for the baby to be placed in onsite child care. At no point was the baby in the classroom during the school day and the new mom went to visit only during scheduled breaks in her work day. That kind of family friendliness works for everyone, and does great things for employee morale without short changing the school's clients/students.

Those like Ms. Pine, who grossly abuse hard won privileges, jeopardize the very existence of family friendly policies for future hires. She's like the office worker who shows up in a tube top and gets the summer casual dress code revoked for everybody.

Bringing the baby to class shows a breathtaking lack of professional judgment.

If I were the head of AU's anthropology department, I'd investigate whether Ms. Pine has a habit of being less than fully present during teaching hours, and re-evaluate her future with the university accordingly.

Ms. Pine claims she didn't want to cancel. Here's the thing: if you are a college professor, you know in advance which days and hours you will need to teach. You line up day care, and then, when it's really important, like the first day of school, you line up BACK UP day care in advance, because it's completely foreseeable that infants will catch colds. Indeed small kids are biologically hard wired to fall ill and demand extra attention precisely when their parents have pressing competing demands.

Ms. Pine was by her own admission aware of back up day care options, but at "$70 to $140 a day," dismissed these as too pricey. Here in Boston, those prices are a bargain for last minute coverage, but that's not the point. Affordable child care is hard to come by in this country, and that's a legitimate social issue we as moms should address in a thoughtful, persistent manner.

But the costs associated with raising the professor's kids are not the students' problem. Nor is a professor with cushy hours and a prestigious gig at a desirable urban university the perfect poster child for the universal plights of over-extended, impoverished working moms.

And specific to Ms. Pine: Does she plan to bring the kid into work every time s/he sniffles? If the cafeteria workers and secretaries at AU need to make day care arrangements for their kids, shouldn't the professors (who make more and have more control over scheduling) share the same burden? What about future offspring? Five years down the line, will Ms. Pine bring a whole gaggle of children to class and park them in the back row with snacks and video games?

The students sitting in Ms. Pine's class, buzzing about AU's own Boobgate instead of reading their assignments, are (presuming full time enrollment with the usual five courses per term) paying nearly $4000 to learn the subject matter of their anthropology course from Ms. Pine.

And she took advantage of those paying clients in a way that a reasonable employer should not have to tolerate.

Ms. Pine is smart to try to make this brouhaha all about breast feeding. Doing so tees up a sex discrimination defense in the event AU takes issue with her behavior. Her response to the student paper went on about how breastfeeding is a natural act. So what? So are lots of other things good employees don't do on the job, because of basic professionalism.