Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The cure for a lousy report card

Yesterday The Today Show aired an interview with President Obama, during which he admitted - you may need to sit down to handle the shock - that his daughters would not get a first rate education in the DC public school system.

The sound byte replayed all over the major media outlets for the next twenty-four hours, in my view detracting from the more important conversation: What are we going to do to fix the problem?

The school system is broken beyond repair by means of any easy (and therefore politically savory) fix. Even President Obama was on about longer school days and shorter vacations yesterday. Yet elementary schoolers in the highest performing countries actually spend several hours less in school than their American counterparts. Having our kids spend more time in ineffectual learning environments won't fix anything. If that's the best solution we can offer, we might as well give up.

The United States is the 13th richest nation in the world, according to the 2009 survey of global GDPs by the World Bank. Yet our students don't crack the top twenty in performance in basic subjects such as arithmetic and reading. While we apparently don't measure progress in the sciences, arts and history, I have no doubt that the performance of US students in those disciplines would be dismal. Why? Because if your kid can't read and count, he's pretty much screwed in terms of other higher learning.

We should be appalled.

Why are our schools such abysmal failures?

Several reasons. Well, three big ones at least: teachers, taxes and curriculum.

It pains me to write this, because I'm a card carrying democrat who fervently believes that certain unskilled workers desperately need the protection of unions. I'm talking about the hand-to-mouth laborers who work in slaughter houses, coal mines, factories and food processing plants. These are people who wouldn't get breaks to use the lavatories if their unions didn't negotiate such "perks."

But teachers are a different animal. They're college educated professionals.

Perhaps teachers, like all other white collar professionals, should be at will employees. Famous-slash-infamous Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's offer to the DC teachers' union spoke volumes: she offered to double teacher pay if the teachers would give up tenure.

Her offer would have brought the top pay tier in inner city Washington to $140,000 a year, which isn't bad, especially when you consider the ten plus weeks of time off educators receive.

Ms. Rhee argued, sensibly in my view, that such pay would bring prestige back to teaching, allow the system to fire ineffective educators and attract an army of young, smart, high energy teaching candidates.

The union rejected her proposal. Nobody close to the situation seemed surprised.

Every day, in districts all over the country, teachers' unions spend LOTS OF MONEY fighting performance reviews. What other white collar professional could get away with that?

Teachers wring their hands and say they need protection from principals bearing grudges, or from over-bearing parents eager to exploit personality conflicts.

I agree. That's why we have all kinds of anti discrimination laws in this country. But last time I checked, unsatisfactory job performance wasn't a legally protected condition.

Meaningful performance reviews would represent a major advance in the state of affairs. This is America. We're supposed to like a bit of healthy competition. So why not offer monetary incentives to above average educators?

To make such a regime function, principals would need to spend more time talking with and observing their teachers. (Hint: the principal, as the hands on manager, should be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.)

School systems should implement similar procedures to review the principals and make decisions about their advancement or dismissal. We need to get rid of the idea of a principal as a mere ceremonial figurehead. Anyone who's ever worked for someone else knows that mismanagement has a way of trickling down and poisoning the rank and file.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that in the alleged land of opportunity, a child's chances for a decent education should not be inextricably tied to local property values. The idea that each town should have sovereignty over its education system is outmoded. Some states, like New Jersey and Maryland, have county school systems and they've been able to reduce many administrative costs. The pay off: consolidation frees up dollars for the classrooms.

Such changes won't sell well at first. They'd basically have to come about by executive order. Imagine the response (for example) from teachers and parents in Wellesley and Newton, if their students suddenly had to integrate with those from Roxbury and Mattapan.

If we're serious about fixing the problem, we shouldn't expend our energy worrying about the poorer students dragging the richer ones down. We should be asking how the richer schools can bring the poorer students up to their standards.

Teachers who work in poor areas, whether in inner cities or Appalachian backwaters, should make more than their counterparts in tony places like Greenwich, Connecticut and Beverly Hills. Why? They're doing the WAY harder job. Unfortunately, when education funding gets pegged to local revenues, the teachers with the cushiest gigs usually make the most money.

Children need to learn critical thinking and problem solving. Many programs of study lack an adequate variety of subject matter. The best schools include more science, art, history, music, language and world events. Bonus systems should reward teachers who make subject matter relevant, because if kids care about the material, they're more likely to retain it.

But above all, kids need to read. A lot more. Curriculums must include engaging material. I'm not saying we should skip the classics, but rather that we should add to the load. No time? Nonsense. The average kid spends four hours a day parked in front of some sort of screen.

Yet, depending on which survey you believe, somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of American fourth graders cannot read.

The number is closer to 70 per cent if you look at the poorest quarter of society.

Which means they will fall hopelessly behind. If your child hasn't learned to read by the time she must read to learn, her prospects in academia start to look awfully bleak.

Standards, particularly in poorer schools, are devastatingly low. We don't need a longer day; we need a higher quality day. There's no reason the typical curriculum shouldn't resemble the advanced placement curriculum. As seen over and over again in charter schools in some of the nation's toughest neighborhoods, kids rise to the occasion when their minds are engaged.

While we're reforming the curriculum, let's scrap No Child Left Behind and other misguided attempts to raise standards through testing. Forcing teachers and students to spend the bulk of the school year learning a standardized test is mind numbing and toxic for all concerned. If we teach the kids to think, read and study, they'll be able to prepare for tests in addition to, and not in place of, their regular studies.

Finally, the curriculum needs to include opportunities for exercise and head clearing. Yes, I mean recess. And lots more of it. Little kids need to burn off energy in order to sit and focus. Middle school and high school students would benefit from ten minutes of head clearing, leg stretching outdoor air between classes. Waste of time? Not at all. The countries that outperform us all feature some form of recess through the upper grades.

I don't hold out a lot of hope that we'll say farewell to the teachers' unions, abolish local control of schools or create a national curriculum that rivals the programs offered at the most elite private institutions.

For now, many families, communities and foundations hope charter schools will solve some of the worst inequities. Notable success stories exist in several cities around the country. But charter schools can accommodate only a fraction of the kids in need, and they choose the lucky minority by drawing lots.

We need much more radical change.

Alright. I'll get off my soapbox for today. But I'll leave you with this link. It's been haunting me since I first saw the story on 60 Minutes.

This is America. Children's futures should not be decided by lottery.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bye bye vacation, hello trip!

A parent of a toddler remarked that their family no longer goes on vacations; they take trips.

I thought this observation summed up one of the facts of parenting that expectant moms and dads may realize, but never truly internalize, until it happens to them.

My friend and her husband are lifelong beach bums. They love nothing more than relaxing on the sand, taking long walks, swimming in the ocean and soaking up the end-of-summer ambiance of beach town New England.

They recently spent a week at a charming beach destination. They had fantastic weather. Their recently mobile child loved the beach. His seaside itinerary went roughly like this:

Eat sand.
Throw sand at Mommy.
Throw sand on blanket.
Request snack.
Drop snack in sand.
Dash like lemming to the water.
Scream when intercepted.
Eat more sand.
Knock umbrella onto beach neighbors.
Eat more sand as Mommy apologizes to neighbors, who are of course elderly and fragile, and Daddy struggles to reinstall umbrella.
Dash like lemming to the water. Coax parents into water. Complain about unsatisfactory water temperature. Retreat to blanket.
Roll in sand.
Take mandatory trip back into water to rinse off.
Howl like a crazed monkey.
Drop second snack of morning into sand.
Bury daddy's feet next to deceased snacks. Eat more sand while parents consult watches.
Become convinced ocean has warmed in course of ten minutes. Make mad dash towards water again. Yowl with disappointment when temperature remains unchanged.
Protest napping in unfamiliar beach front environment.
Secure transfer to kiddie pool before ten a.m.

Mommy and Daddy took solace in the fact that pool side bar opened early. They spend the rest of the day contemplating the fact that they now live to serve. They returned to the city tanned but tired. He went to work the following Monday with a surprising spring in his step. She lamented that she finally understood the old adage about needing a vacation from one's vacation.

I never understood people who said that, either.

Until I stepped off a TransAtlantic flight with a one-year-old. I just wanted a hot shower and a bed. The Grape thought that was rubbish. He snoozed over the ocean, and didn't much care that it was sleepy time in our new time zone. He was ready to rock. It was the first time I caught the Little Grape looking at R. and me with unmasked disdain.

Clearly he'd gotten total weenies for parents.

It's not just travel that changes. Where R. and I used to dine in restaurants, we now get fed. By which I mean we wolf our meals with very little elective conversation, so that we can finish the main course before the Grape tires of sitting in his high chair. Dining out is no longer a leisurely gastronomic journey. It's a means to an end.

We've even learned to put in the Grape's order the minute our butts hit the chairs. Sometimes before. Otherwise he tanks up on bread and wants to get up and explore the place before his food arrives.

It's even more stressful to visit child free friends in their homes. "The Grape is adorable!" they say. "We'd love it if you brought him along."

They know not of what they speak. Meaning: The Grape = bull. Your apartment = china shop.

I had to spell it out even more bluntly for someone recently: Your designer white suede couches and my kid do not mix well. Particularly when you place hors d'oeuvres and red wine within his strike zone on your antique coffee table. Your collection of modern sculpture, your bannister-free staircase and your unenclosed patio comprise a minefield of hazards that makes visiting you with the Grape in tow an event worthy of prescription anti-anxiety drugs.

Except then I'd be too chill, the Grape would destroy something valuable and you'd cross me off your dance card for good.

"Don't you have nice things anymore?" our child free friends ask, their faces painted with alarm.

Of course we do. They're just packed away or fenced off with an extensive system of bulky plastic gates that render the apartment reminiscent of a kennel.

"Can't you make him sit still?" they demand, voices dripping with judgment.

Absolutely. In a few years.

At least I hope so.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Birthday registries: A sign of armageddon?

The Grape and I almost skipped the playground today, because I thought I might take a stab at de-cluttering the apartment. We're getting it ready to sell, so the great dig out needs to happen sometime soon, or we'll never get to move.

And moving no longer feels entirely elective. The Grape kind of needs his own room before he can start telling people his crib abuts the dining room table.

The sun was shining and the Grape was unpacking boxes about as fast as I could pack them, so we gave up on being productive and hit the park.

Lucky me. Because there, in the sandbox, I heard about something so beyond the pale I thought it was the stuff of suburban legends.

A mom of three was clutching a birthday party invitation for a five year old boy's party and stammering in disbelief. She had picked up the mail over an hour earlier and still couldn't process this missile. The colorful card inviting her brood for cake and whatever else featured an insert containing registry information. As if that alone wasn't crass enough, the printed invitation concluded with an admonishment to "Buy from the registry, please! Those are the only presents Junior wants!"

Where I come from, which I promise is not a galaxy far away in another dimension, children don't pre-order their birthday presents. They graciously accept whatever they may be fortunate enough to receive. Duplicate gifts provide teaching moments. Elementary schoolers aren't too young to make attempts at masking disappointment, if necessary. And equally importantly, there's nothing quite like the squeal of delight from a little kid who gets exactly what he or she hoped for, without knowing in advance.

The registry people's kids will never experience that.

Of course a half dozen playground moms whipped out their iPhones and BlackBerries and pulled up the registry in question. The birthday boy had extravagant tastes; the least expensive item was $59.95.

Are his parents on drugs?

This birthday registry thing achieves levels of audacity beyond that of those oafs who ask guests to address their own thank you cards; or the couples who "register" for cash to defray the costs of their fourth trip down the aisle; or the children who send Santa multi-page bullet-pointed lists, without the requisite explanation of good behavior and polite (albeit self-serving) inquiries as to the big man's health, not to mention that of his tiny reindeer.

I was sorry, but no longer surprised, to learn that at least a half dozen sites exist to help your child create and share a birthday registry. They pitch convenience to gift givers, but come on. It's really not that hard to find an appropriate present for a little kid. If you're truly flummoxed, you can take two minutes to ask the child's parents, or the clerk in the toy store, or an innocent bystander who looks vaguely kid-savvy.

This registry nonsense is about G-R-E-E-D greed, which, to me at least, doesn't seem like the greatest trait parents can encourage in their offspring.

Registries weren't designed for little kids with multiple gift-receiving occasions (one of the sites allows a child to maintain multiple registries: birthday, holiday, preschool graduation, etc.). They were invented so brides didn't receive fourteen different patterns of china. And all the etiquette gurus agree that registry information, even for events like weddings, has no place on an invitation.

I left the park glad that the registry in question was someone else's problem. I hope the mom sends regrets. Somebody ought to set this child's parents straight before they turn their pint-sized consumer into a major monster.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Let's bring back "Because I said so."

Today I'm treading out onto a limb. I'm going to criticize other parents, not for fun, but in the hope that maybe someone will enlighten me as to why so many people seem content to act like their kids run the show.

I'm all for bribing my kid, as I've written before, because it works. Positive reinforcement elicits better results than punishment in a variety of scenarios. Everyone has good days and bad, including kids.

But sometimes children behave like twits. Eventually other children grow wise to the fact that so and so acts like a spoiled monster all the time, and they seek friends elsewhere. Kids with overdeveloped senses of entitlement don't make the best students. It's good to explain the reasons behind rules and pronouncements, but I'm skeptical of people who turn every difference of opinion into a full-scale negotiation. And I'm perplexed by those who can't muster the gumption to tell - not ask - their kids what to do when a situation begs the imperative tense. Life isn't a democracy. Serial indulgers of bratty behavior aren't doing their kids any favors.

I was one of those exhausting children who wanted to know the whys and wherefores of absolutely everything. From a young age, I tried to negotiate my way out of various things, such as Sunday school, math homework and playing with my younger brother. I remember being given logical reasons why I had to do something, but sometimes the maternal answer to "why?" was a simple and direct, "because I said so."

And I'm pleased to report absolutely zero psychological scarring as a result. So I can't figure out why so many seemingly reasonable people become parents and lose their backbones.

Put another way: Fostering curiosity, good. Fostering arguments, bad. As a parent, I think it's my job to offer creative responses to inquiries ranging from the basic "Why is the sky blue?" to the more demanding "Why is that lady fat?" or "Why can't I swim in the Charles River?"

Toddlers should get to negotiate many routine things: which bedtime story to read, which fruit to snack on, which treasure to bring to show and tell. It seems natural and healthy to encourage opinions and decision making.

Except when it's not. I've witnessed three recent examples so egregious they're worth sharing.

The first happened in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. A child who looked about four hurled herself on the floor, two-year-old style, kicked and screamed and refused to go any further unless her mother relented and bought some cereal that may as well have been called Nutritionally Bankrupt Sugar Nuggets. Instead of hoisting the child onto her feet and telling her that they were buying whatever the mother planned to buy, the mom spent a FULL FOURTEEN MINUTES explaining to the child that "Mommy doesn't like it when you do that," and alternately pleading with her to stop. I was so fascinated that the Grape and I kept returning to the aisle to peek on their progress. Somehow I was still shocked when the little wretch won. I watched in near-disbelief as the mom made a big show of placing the Nutritionally Bankrupt Sugar Nuggets in the cart and got down to the kid's level and actually thanked her for stopping the tantrum.

The second happened on an airplane. Flying long haul with kids is challenging. Everyone is over tired, uncomfortable and plain bored. Across the aisle from us, a toddler was entertaining himself by kicking the seat of the woman in front of him. Hard. And over and over again. The parents pretended not to notice until the woman politely but firmly asked the kid to stop. The kid kicked harder. The woman glared at the parents. The parents, instead of telling Junior to knock it off now, went through this whole question and answer dance, wherein they tried to explain to the kid why it's not nice to disturb the lady in front of him. This accomplished nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. It illustrated to the kid that his behavior was producing attention, and he seemed to like that. The lady suffering this assault finally ran out of patience and pressed the attendant call button. A snippy steward who must have seemed like enough of an authority figure told the little boy to stop kicking because it's not allowed. Plain and simple. It worked.

The third incident involved a four-year-old sticking his hands in a younger child's birthday cake, before the birthday boy even got close enough to blow out his candles. Did his mother scold him or tell him to knock it off? Nope. She just said, in a saccharin laden voice, "I don't think that's very nice." The little brat rolled his eyes at his mom, said he didn't care and informed her that he wanted the first piece of cake. He proceeded to hover/slobber over the dessert table. His mom shrugged at the other parents, basically saying, what can you do?

Here's how that should have gone:
"Junior. Don't touch the cake."
"Because it's not yours."
"Why can't I have it?"
"Because I said so."

If necessary, she should have physically restrained him from contaminating the refreshments with his playground paws.

All of these parents are raising brats, albeit probably in varying degrees. (The plane parents might have been so exhausted themselves, if they were, for example, connecting from another long haul flight, to think clearly.) I'm not sure when the desirable trend of listening to one's offspring morphed into the fashion of treating them like full-fledged reasonable adults. Because little kids ultimately aren't responsible for their own decisions and behavior; their parents are.

And I think it's time parents started pulling rank on their kids again.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A few words on bad words

The Grape says words now, and he repeats things. Yesterday he pronounced his dinner "yucky." He learned that word on the playground; the yucky item in question was sand. I suspect he believes "yucky" means the act of spitting something out.

R. and I should start watching what we say around him. Because otherwise one of his first hundred words might be "fuck."

I'm a fan of the f-word.

Not because I lack a more sophisticated vocabulary. Not because of some lingering rebellion against our mothers' notions of ladylike language. I like its versatility and its ability to underscore a point a thousand times more strongly than the weak and overused "very." Several years ago, I worked for a sophisticated, educated woman who could use the f-word as every part of speech. I kind of liked that about her.

But I'm digressing. My point is that I think the word "fuck" just isn't the bad word it used to be. Sure, it's still a crass description of the basic sex act, and that's not something I'm eager to explain to the Grape anytime before, let's say, preschool. But "fuck" lacks the withering power to degrade someone or something. Which, to my mind at least, makes it much less bad than a lot of words that permeate the urban vernacular. Another six-letter word that I'm not even going to type springs to mind.

In my opinion, this particular word should have no place outside literature. We need to keep the n-word in Huck Finn and Uncle Tom, as well as in modern books about the country's not-so-distant past. And when teachers teach these books, they should tackle the language head on for what it is: a weapon used by those in power to keep others marginalized. They should also teach that its prevalence in African American parlance is an example of a previously marginalized group taking ownership of a semantic weapon, thereby rendering it less powerful. I get that, but I cannot help wishing that word would just go away.

For most of my life, I never considered words like "slut" and "whore" in the same category as the f-bomb, let alone in the horrid class of racial slurs. Those words sound crass, of course, but somehow they never seemed quite as awful. Then I heard Lisa Goldblatt Grace from the My Life, My Choice program speak at an event about child trafficking. I wasn't the only person in the room who didn't realize that the average age a girl enters prostitution in Massachusetts is twelve. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority have never touched drugs before becoming prostitutes; their traffickers introduce drugs as one of many methods of control. These girls aren't "crack whores" or "dirty sluts." They're victims of pimps and customers who somehow believe it's alright to molest a minor if they pay cash for the privilege.

Labeling the girls with words that make them sound culpable serves to divert attention from the real criminals in the trafficking and prostitution scenario.

Racial and sexual slurs of all varieties can hurt and disparage in a way the f-word can't even touch. But they're everywhere. In pop and hip hop lyrics. In the passing banter of middle schoolers. And all over the internet. These are the words I dread explaining to my kid, but explain the I will, when the time comes, because these bad words do something the f-word doesn't: they label, degrade and classify some "other" as less than fully human.

And if I hear those words cross the Grape's lips, after he is old enough to understand, you can bet he'll get the soap.

I don't use the f-word as freely as I used to. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think it's the most attractive thing coming from the mouths of babes. But if he says it eventually, I can't see myself getting too riled. "Fuck" plainly illustrates the old sticks and stones adage.

Some of the really bad words heard all too frequently on the sidewalks of Boston do not.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

People who don't take care of their pets are disgusting

The Grape is a great little animal lover. He has this adorable cooing sound he makes whenever he sees an animal of any description. He never makes that sound for people or things, just dogs, cats, birds, horses or whatever other creatures happen to cross his path.

He and Lucy, my tiny tortoiseshell terror, have become inseparable, despite Lucy's initial feline freak out when R. and I brought the Grape home from the hospital, and she realized the screaming bundle wasn't a mere house guest. My geriatric cat, Siren, ignores the Grape for the most part, and that's okay, too. He tries to pet her; she endures the attention for a moment and then slinks away. When he pets Lucy, she purrs and rolls over to offer her tummy. Hopefully the Grape is starting to figure out that different rules apply to different animals. As soon as we move into a larger apartment, we plan to add a dog to the mix.

So why am I boring you with this chronicle of domestic tranquility? Because I am appalled by the number of otherwise normal-seeming people who have suggested that babies and pets don't mix. When I was pregnant a few individuals (who obviously weren't close enough to me to be asking such things) actually inquired as to whether I would get rid of the cats before the baby came.

My stock answer: People who don't take care of their pets are disgusting.

Those who suggested I would love my furry friends less once I became a mommy just got a withering glare. If they persisted, they got the stock answer, albeit with a bit more venom.

There is no exception, at least in my mind, to that rule, and I am doing my best to make sure the Grape grows up feeling the same way. I think we're off to a good start. His first words included the names of my mother's dogs.

If you adopt an animal, you make a commitment to take care of that animal to the best of your ability for its natural life. Period.

And I mean you, the adult person. Not your kid.

I cringe when people say, "We're getting Junior a puppy. It's going to be his responsibility. Isn't that wonderful?" Um, no. It's horrible.

It's wonderful for children to learn responsibility and humaneness by helping to care for pets, but it's beyond the capacity of an average elementary schooler to be a dog or cat's primary person. Most rescues rightly turn down applicants who insist an eight-year-old will be responsible for training and maintaining a pet, because they've learned that if Mom, or whatever adult is home most of time, isn't on board with getting a dog, chances are good the dog will be returned to the rescue, often as a harder to place pooch with some bad habits.

I understand that maybe one dog out of a hundred really cannot live with a small child. When that happens, the responsible thing for the people to do is to re-home the dog to a more appropriate family. It's sad for everyone, but sometimes necessary. And in most of these cases, the canine-baby incompatibility isn't breaking news, so the people will have feelers out for possible new homes before things spiral out of hand. There are also the occasional sad cases of a child with a ferocious allergy to fur. Those tend to be heartbreaking for everyone involved; often the allergic child is the most crushed of all when it comes time to say goodbye to the dog or cat.

But, and this is a big but, I volunteer with a dog rescue.

I see the emails from dog owners who want to unload their pets on an already grossly overtaxed shelter system (between 3 and 4 million HEALTHY dogs and puppies are euthanized in this country every year). I talk to the volunteers who return their calls; most of the time, these new parents have come to view their previously cherished pets as superfluous hassles. Dogs who previously enjoyed the run of the house get confined to crates in the kitchen for most of the day. They get yelled at by testy visitors when they try to get a whiff of the new family member. And then the new parents marvel that Fido resents the baby. Sometimes, some gentle course correction from a good trainer can put everyone back on the path to happy coexistence, but oftentimes, people won't even listen to that suggestion. They've talked themselves into thinking they're dumping the dog because it's in the dog's interest to do so.

I'm calling bullshit on that.

Even worse are the visibly pregnant women (and expectant dads) who show up at the Animal Rescue League just down the street from me. Every few weeks you see one tearfully waddle in to turn over a confused and terrified pet, in anticipation of welcoming a new baby. "I won't have time," they say. Or, "My spouse says Beau here has to go," or "My mom told me cat boxes can kill the baby." (Cat waste can carry a harmful bacteria. It's very rare in indoor cats, however, and it's nothing good hand washing - which new parents should practice anyway - can't address.), or "We're worried about the wee one eating pet food." (The Grape has a surprising appetite for cat kibble. I figure a few organic crunchies can't be any worse for him than the sand he and his contemporaries shovel into their faces at the playground.)

The worst thing about all this is that these people, with very few exceptions, knew they wanted to have children when they took in a pet. Though most of them would never admit to being lousy pet owners, that's what they are.

Most dogs and cats can happily cohabit with kids. It's a matter of supervision, controlled introductions, good training and common sense. Numerous resources on introducing a baby to your dog or cat exist, and they're not even a little hard to find. The basic gist: the pet should associate the new baby with good things and the pet and baby should never be left unattended. Reputable shelters will happily give out the names of qualified behavior consultants and the internet has hundreds of articles that go into great detail on the subject.

I believe that, if the adults in the household are on board, pets are wonderful for children. Lucy and Siren enhance the Grape's life every day. And, no, I don't love the furry critters any less because I have the Grape. I hope our love of animals is something we'll continue to share forever. And I'm glad I'll never have to point to a photo and say, "I got rid of him when I had you."