Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's a glamorous life

You know it's going to be a banner day when it starts with the cat taking a dip in the toilet.

Siren the Cat is old and senile. Like many ancient humans, she has lucid days and crazy ones. On her not-so-good days, she's developed an interest in water. She tries to join me in the shower or the Grape in his bath. I thought her sudden penchant for hydration was harmless old lady behavior.

Until yesterday morning, when the Grape alerted me to her whereabouts and asked me whether he should flush.

I guess that's what I get for attempting to brush my teeth in the relative privacy of the other bathroom.

So I spent a good half hour bathing the cat, and an equal amount of time rehabilitating the bathroom from the cat's unscheduled ablutions. She reacted to all this attention by jolting into lucidity and panicking. By which I mean, she rocketed out of the bath and promptly shed at least half her hair on the freshly vacuumed couch.

While I scrubbed toilet water off Siren, the Grape amused himself by repeatedly crashing his ride on Tigger plane into the one item of antique furniture R. actually cares about.

"I crash! I crash AGAIN!" he yelled merrily.

Did I rush to stop him? No. Because I didn't want him taking advantage of my indisposed state to point the Tigger plane down the stairs like some kind of crazed toddler kamikaze.

I also knew that if Siren the Cat escaped the bath midstream, I'd never get her soaped up feline form out from under the bed.

This all happened before 7:45 a.m. The Grape eventually tired of crashing his aircraft and asked if he could stand in the toilet. No. "That's very yucky," I reminded him sternly, while thinking, Something else to worry about, now that he can climb out of bed on his own.

Climbing out of bed is the Grape's new favorite activity. He did it seventeen times yesterday, during the two-hour screaming, hysterical exorcism formerly known as his nap.

The first time he bailed from bed, I thought I'd outsmart him. I scoured the city for a toddler size sleep sack and zipped him in, thinking if his legs are bundled together he can't get over the rail.

The little Houdini squirmed out of the sleep sack - without undoing the zipper - in under three minutes. Child's play, as they say. He then carried it out of his bedroom and presented it to me like a cat showing off a fresh kill.

By the time R. returned from work, my non-napping escape artist had devolved into a stumbling, weepy, hunger striking mess. One who couldn't go down for the night for at least another two hours, which feels more like ten in overtired kid time. And I had made it through exactly one sentence of the hundred pages I had set aside to proofread during the Grape's nap.

I poured myself a generous glass of wine and looked on the bright side: I have another couple of weeks before The K Street Affair has to be absolutely done. We got through another day with no visits to either the human or animal ER. And Siren the Cat smells pleasantly like Johnson's baby shampoo - all the better for when she stands in the corner and meows at the walls.

"Why does she do that?" the Grape asked last night.

"Because she's old and crazy."

"Like Mamma?"

"No. Not like Mamma."

At least I hope not.

Monday, March 19, 2012

One mother grieves for another

A former colleague of mine was killed by a drunk driver over the weekend. It was a senseless, hideous crash that should never have happened.

The basic facts are not in dispute. Rhode Island State Police received reports of a car traveling south in the northbound lane of I95 in Providence. By the time they caught up with the driver, he had (unsurprisingly) collided head on into a vehicle traveling in the correct, northbound direction. My old co-worker, Domenic A. Izzi, Jr., the "correct direction driver," was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 40.

His killer was arraigned this morning. Prosecutors charged 24-year-old Corey A. Johnston with driving while intoxicated, death resulting, driving to endanger, death resulting, and leaving the scene of an accident. Mr. Johnston (also unsurprisingly) was intoxicated at the time of the crash. Not my opinion. He submitted to blood work.

I have no idea if Mr. Johnston has prior scuffles with the law on his record. I don't know whether this is his first drunk driving offense. Frankly, I don't care. Rhode Island's criminal code allows a defendant convicted of the charges against Mr. Johnston to be incarcerated for up to fifteen years.

I hope the judge doles out the maximum.

And not because of my tenuous connection to the victim. I haven't seen Domenic in almost twenty years, and he was never a close friend. We kept up, now and then, on Facebook. We worked together at the Laborers' International Union the year I graduated from college. We bonded over our unusual demographics: I believe we were the only two employees under forty in the whole place.

I remember Domenic as a kid with an artist's soul struggling to fit into a pragmatic world. He seemed a gentle sort, a heart on his sleeve guy surrounded by saltier, grittier types. I know, from Facebook, that he'd become an accomplished photographer. He loved music, and had learned to make music fit in with his "day job." In short, he'd finally figured out who he was.

And then, crash.

Domenic's mother lost her only son in a tangle of metal on the pavement Saturday night, because Mr. Johnston behaved like an idiot. I can't imagine what Mrs. Izzi must be feeling. And I won't speculate.

I hope something good can come from this senseless tragedy. Maybe Rhode Island could re-evaluate its penalties for drunk driving. Because, as the law stands now, someone could get trashed, drive the wrong way on the highway, miraculously kill no one and still not go to jail.


I've never been a fan of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I think their tendency to urge tee-totaling is foolish, unrealistic and wholly misguided. I like to drink as much as the next person.

We don't need more laws about alcoholic beverages (see Prohibition). We need first offense DUI penalties with real teeth.

Had Mr. Johnston careened the wrong way down the highway and not injured another soul, he should still be removed from society for a spell of years. That's how it works in many Western countries, and shocker: they have fewer drunk drivers.

I don't know if Mr. Johnston got drunk on his own, or if he was served by someone else. If it's the latter, I hope Domenic's family sues the bejeezus out of the person who served Mr. Johnston the booze and let him stumble off to his car. Let's be real: even though the defendant's Blood Alcohol Content has yet to be published, reasonable minds can conclude he imbibed more than two beers (roughly the legal limit in RI). Sounds like wrongful death to me.

I hope this case makes restaurateurs more inclined to back up their servers when they decide a customer has had enough.

I hope it gives hosts at private parties the backbone to confiscate an intoxicated guest's keys. I've had to do that once in my adult life. It wasn't a pleasant interaction, but imagine if this guy had killed some innocent bystander with his car. Once I let someone drunk leave with her car, and while nothing happened that night, I kick myself every time I think of that evening.

Here's the newly refurbished, hard and fast Domenic Rule at my house: get as sloshed as you want, but don't think you're driving anywhere. Call a cab. Pass out on the patio. Try to navigate the T. You can retrieve your keys in the morning.

Think I'm being too tough?

Stop for a second and imagine your child's life snuffed out by a drunk driver, one whose host let him get behind the wheel.

Losing a child under any circumstances is horrific. Not to be wished on one's worst enemy. Losing one to murder (and I'm only speculating here) sounds more awful still.

Make no mistake. Mr. Johnston murdered my old friend Domenic, whether the law bestows a euphemistic name on his crime or not.

As it's foreseeable that if one plunges a knife into someone else, death may result, it's foreseeable that if one pilots a car down the wrong side of a divided highway, death may result.

I hope Domenic is in a better place. I hope Rhode Island and other states will consider far harsher DUI penalties because of his murder. Perhaps then his death wouldn't be so hopelessly senseless.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Are picture books an endangered species?

An unsettling hypothesis took root the other day as the Grape and I browsed in the children's section of my favorite independent book store. We saw Corduroy and Paddington. Peter Rabbit and Madeline. Make Way for Ducklings and Goodnight Moon. The Lorax and The Snowy Day. As I leafed through the old favorites, I wondered:

Is the picture book industry doomed?

I scanned the children's bestsellers, the new arrivals, the staff recommendations. All around me I saw the classics. Beautiful books that not only pre-date the Grape, but pre-date me. The Grape owns many such titles, with their timeless characters and beautiful illustrations.

First, let me say I see nothing wrong with a child's home library packed with classics. One of the great pleasures of reading with children is the sharing of the most beloved books. It's fun for me to rediscover the work of Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Virginia Lee Burton and H.A. Rey, among many, many others.

I went home and logged onto Amazon to check my theory.

Sure enough, most of the picture book bestsellers were around when I was a kid. Last month, USA TODAY printed a list of the "Top 100 Children's Books of All Time," and sent diligent parents from coast to coast scampering to the book stores to buy backlist titles from ten, twenty, even sixty years ago.

I applaud that. Kind of.

But where's the new stuff?

Titles like Famous Character Uses the Indoor Plumbing, Famous Character Feels [insert emotion here] and Famous Character Eats His Vegetables are everywhere. To say nothing of Famous Character's ABC and Famous Character's Numbers.

Cross marketing between the toy, book and entertainment businesses has existed as long as television advertising. Perhaps longer. These stories are cheap to produce, and they provide free, ostensibly educational brand promotion. Timeless, they're not, but I never thought of them as harmful before. I tend to subscribe to the "whatever gets kids reading is good" school of thought.

Maybe I should re-visit that opinion. Publishers still print new children's fiction every year, but many of the titles get lost on the retail end of the supply chain, where they drown under the dreck of children's pulp fiction.

The kinds of inspired, often quiet books that win critical acclaim don't just have to compete for shelf space with the true classics and the Famous Character Pees in the Toilet and Gets a Sticker! books.

Nearly as pervasive as the Famous Character du jour titles are series featuring classic characters in new predicaments. Sounds fun, right?

It's not. I challenge any parent to read any title from The Busytown Mystery series (which features Scarry's characters but NOT his prose) without contemplating self harm. Or at least book burning.

Meanwhile, authors with fresh, outside the box children's stories find themselves up against a publishing industry ever more fearful of taking chances. Less than one per cent of adult manuscripts get noticed by the big six publishers. I venture a guess that picture book authors face stiffer odds still. Color printing, even in 2012, is costly. Nobody likes taking risks. So the publishers sell the proven winners and talented new storytellers languish. Which perpetuates the problem, because if a title's first printing doesn't earn out (a very high bar where color printing is concerned), it's unlikely the publisher will grant the author a second chance with a new story.

Publishing is a business, and I understand that book sellers face increasing pressure to make money as their industry changes and adapts to the internet age. (I mean, how else does one explain Snooki the novelist?)

To stay relevant, independent book shops need to offer a shopping and browsing experience unavailable in point and click cyberspace.

Might I humbly suggest that local bookstores devote just one prominent shelf to new and noteworthy children's literature? I doubt they'd lose money with such a minor geographic adjustment.

If consumers are hell bent on buying Famous Character Says Hello to a Stranger and Is Never Heard From Again, Ever, they'll be willing to squat to the lower shelves to grab it.

I'd make sure to check the "new and noteworthy" children's offerings regularly. I'd urge my mommy friends to do the same.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Slightly Juvenile Political Satire (Saturday extra)

If I were seeking higher office, I might shell out $9.99 and buy the URL for my name, the office coveted and the year. Just saying.


Bob McDonnell VP 2012

Hint: VP isn't just for veep any more.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A lesson in math and civics (in honor of Super Tuesday)

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday - a highlight in the never-ending Republican presidential primary season. And no, this post is not about the dog on the roof.

The GOP contest is a spectator sport for me. I was relatively late to the party, but I became a registered democrat when W launched the war in Iraq. R., however, being a stubborn Connecticut Yankee, has never joined either party and is therefore eligible to vote tomorrow. (The MA primary is open to GOP members and voters with no registered party affiliation.)

Everyone with half a functioning brain knows Romney will win Massachusetts handily tomorrow. He may well get half the vote - a bogey he has yet to hit in any contest, despite campaigning for six years.

But, here's the fun part: The winner doesn't win all the delegates. They're apportioned proportionately, with any candidate who gets 15% of the vote receiving a share.

A long GOP primary season is good for the President, and I rather enjoy watching the angry old white men of the republican party spend millions attacking each other. But my motivation in egging on R.'s political mischief is bigger.

So tomorrow, R. and the Grape will trot down to the senior center, hold their noses, vote for either Santorum or Paul, return home and bathe in sanitizer before touching anything. (The Grape likes voting. The ladies working the polls give him a sticker.) Let me be crystal clear: if the United States chooses either Paul or Santorum as its president, we will emigrate to Finland.

And while I love Finland, I'm confident we won't need to move.

I'm digressing. This is really about Mr. Romney, a man so uninspiring that even George Will (the nation's most syndicated conservative writer) has conceded that Obama's re-election prospects are excellent.

Since Mr. Romney is so incapable of stirring positive passion, many friends and family members have asked why I loathe the man.

Several points:

1. I don't trust him as far as I could throw him (which is not far). Mr. Romney may not, in his heart of hearts, care if women have access to abortion or if gay citizens can marry or not.
But his willingness to throw women and gay people under the bus to pander to the far right disqualifies him as a man of principle. I don't trust him to protect my right to choose.

But this is bigger than my view. In early days, my father, a successful businessman who usually ignores social questions and votes his wallet, announced he was going to write a big check to Romney.

Naturally, I freaked out. This was while the Personhood brouhaha was going down in Mississippi. I wrote dad an email, saying I understand I cannot dictate his vote, but if he goes further - and actually supports the guy financially - I will view that as a slap in my face. I told dear old dad he cannot dismiss contraception and abortion as "the woman thing"(his words) because he has daughters and granddaughters.

Guess what? Dad wrote me back and agreed. I know, I almost fell off my chair, too. Sorry Mitt, no dollars from my dad for you.

Dear Old Dad now LOVES my "Mitt is Mean" bumper sticker. He also noted, as a hard-working, tax-paying businessman, that Mitt's "almost $400,000 isn't a lot of money" remark pissed him off.

And I suspect dad found the Let Detroit Go Bankrupt bit disingenuous. Mr. Romney is a smart business man. He knows as well as anyone that hell will freeze over and become a ski resort before the big three auto makers could attract the private money required for Romney's preferred type of managed bankruptcy. Which brings me to point two.

2. It's okay to get a pony for your birthday. Yay for you! What's NOT okay: reaching an age greater than six and not realizing that everyone else doesn't get a pony, too.

Or, it's okay to be wildly successful. Yay for you! But if you want to lead the free world you should have a little empathy for the rest of us.

Mr. Romney is often called tone deaf, for good reason. You can't run on the bad economy and go around saying things like, "corporations are people," or "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs." Or my recent favorite: "Some of my good friends own Nascar teams."

Simply put, Mr. Romney elevates the old cliche about being born on third base to a previously unseen level. This matters because his unfavorable rating among registered voters is already the highest of any major party presidential candidate. People don't like him. He's out of touch, awkward when questioned, sweaty when attacked, and flat out DESPERATE. Nobody wears desperation well. Enough said.

3. Point three is more subjective. When I look at Mr. Romney, I see a boss, not a leader. The difference is subtle, but important. Bosses order people to do things. Leaders inspire others to act. Mr. Romney has gravitas and intellect, but he lacks the charisma - that spark - to be the kind of leader anyone (even most republicans, judging by primary results to date) want to follow. And that charisma is key. Obama has it. W had it. Carter didn't. Nor the first Bush. Anyone see a trend?

4. He drove to Canada from New England with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car. Many friends have questioned the veracity of this outrageous statement, but Mr. Romney himself has confirmed the incident, on tape. I don't vote for anti-choice candidates. I don't vote for anti-gay candidates. I don't vote for animal abusers.

For those of you in the burbs, think about it as you drive to the polls. None of the cars will have live animals traveling on the roof. And if they do, the police will stop them for animal cruelty.

Which leaves the Grape and R. scooting down the street to fill in the oval for either Santorum or Paul. We'll check the polls in the morning and see which nut job needs more help getting to 15. We'll do this in honor of my dad. If I can get dad (old, male, comfortable, self made) to reject Romney, I bet I can persuade a few more fence sitters to do the same.