Monday, December 16, 2013

Awful Anniversary

The Grape and R. and I had a fantastic, fun-packed winter weekend. We went sledding twice—once at night after bedtime and all Sunday afternoon with friends, we visited the Children's Museum; attended a holiday party, and we attended a Finnish language Christmas service on a snowy Saturday evening. We made cookies, listened to Christmas music, admired our tree, and played with the Grape and Lila the Dog in the snow.

And R. and I took five minutes on Saturday, December 14, to send an email to our Massachusetts representatives, because we were thinking of the families in Newtown, Connecticut who lost their little children to a horrific gun massacre one year ago. Those families don't get to make memories with their kids because the country's lax gun laws allowed a mentally unstable young man to slaughter them, in the sanctuary of their elementary school, with a military style assault weapon.

Since Congress a) never works—the U.S. House worked a whopping four days this December (nice work if you can get it, I suppose), and b) appears hopelessly gridlocked on everything from immigration reform to naming post offices, we believe the best chance for progress on comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation lies with the states. 2013 was a mixed bag for gun violence prevention legislation: many states, perhaps most notably Connecticut, strengthened their laws, while many states, mainly in the Bible Belt, loosed theirs.

We believe it's important that our state representatives keep hearing from concerned parents on this important issue.

In case it's helpful, I'll paste a copy of the letter R. and I sent Saturday below.

It's easy to find your state representatives' contact information. Just Google "look up state rep" and/or "look up state senator" and the name of your state. Every state has a tool where you can enter your address to find the names and contact information for your elected officials.

Dear Sen.Chang-Diaz and Rep. Rushing:

We live in your district, we are the parents of a four-year-old boy who will enter elementary school next year, and we vote.

We are writing to you today, on the anniversary of the horrific gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, to urge you to keep pushing for passage of comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation in Massachusetts.

We support Rep. David Linsky's bill, which would limit magazine sizes, limit the number of gun purchases a person could make in a month, strengthen background checks, increase penalties for gun crimes, and mandate liability insurance for all gun owners, among other important reforms.

We are proud that Massachusetts once led the nation in gun violence prevention legislation, but we are disappointed that our state has fallen behind states like Connecticut this year. We also urge you and your colleagues to look to Connecticut's new legislation as a model.

The gun massacre at Newtown was a wake up call for us as parents. We hadn't given a huge amount of consideration to gun laws in our voting prior to 2012; now a candidate's stance on this issue is a litmus test for us. We are both proud members of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America

Simply put, we will never again support any candidate for any office, if s/he earns anything other than an F from the NRA.

Thank you for your time and continued leadership on this critical issue.

Happy holidays, and best regards,

Saturday, November 30, 2013

And Thou Shalt Display Thy Child on Thy Holiday Card

I loathe the holiday photo task. Who decreed that, If thou hast a child, thou shalt display that child on thy Christmas card?

Because I'd like to give him/her a piece of my mind.

What happened to the days we all ordered nice cards depicting Christmas trees, angels, polar bears or Currier and Ives paintings, and maybe inserted a wallet sized print of the school portrait in the ones bound for elderly relatives?

It's partly my fault. When the Grape was two, I had a professional photographer, take his picture. A few of my friends tossed the card by accident because they thought it was an advertisement. The photo was that good. I should have had her come back this fall. Maybe I was being cheap, or lazy—I've had a tenacious chest and head cold for five weeks and counting—but I never got around to booking her.

Besides, last year, R. and I spent easily six hours on the project, between various photo sessions wherein boy and dog cooperated only on an alternating basis, photo editing and card layout (Because who knew a vertical photo wouldn't work with our first choice card? Or that the words on the card on our second choice would disappear into the photo because you cannot print white text on a snowy rooftop?)

Surely we could improve on that experience.

This year I thought I was on the ball.

R. and I took roughly two hundred photos of the Grape and Lila the Dog in the woods for the holiday card. Why two hundred? Because the Grape despises the camera and that's how many it took to get one decent photo of both child and canine.

I went online, picked a card format, uploaded our one decent photo and clicked the "submit order" button. I even had a coupon for free shipping. I felt very proud and efficient.

This year we would not be sending out a photo entitled Meltdown Next to Dog Butt, I thought smugly.

R. and I decided that this picture, while not a professional portrait, adequately portrayed the boy and his dog, circa holidays 2013, in a not entirely unflattering light:

FedEx delivered the box of cards the day before Thanksgiving. I tore them open, pleased because I figured I could get the overseas ones sent out over the Thanksgiving weekend.

And then I gawked at the parallel green smudges stretching from the top left corner.

Where my print of the photo shows trees reflected on the Winchester Reservoir, a favorite place to walk on fall weekends, the card showed two bright green parallel lines.

Which might have been alright, except that on top of our photo not transferring well, the card company experienced some kind of printer problem. On the cards, the tree reflection line ran all the way across the picture, leaving the Grape looking like he had recently emerged from a lengthy soak in a heavily chlorinated pool.

I stepped away from the fourteen apples I was peeling for the next day's pie and sent a tweet to Tiny Prints, explaining the problem.

Tiny Prints responded promptly, and made several attempts to fix the way the photo was printing, before their design specialist got in touch today and suggested we try a different picture.

Easier said than done. First of all, it was twenty degrees outdoors when I saw her email. Re-creating the  fall tableau was out, and we sent a picture of boy hidden under coat and hat last year.

So we tried indoors. We tried with a cute holiday outfit and elf hat. We tried until the camera battery croaked.

Fifty-two pictures. Most with dog yawning or the Grape making a ridiculous "CHEESE!" face that makes him resemble nothing so much as a piranha, or the Grape's ridiculous long underwear showing, and some with inexplicably weird bright back light.

Here is one of the better ones. No, this is not a joke. They look less than thrilled, but at least Lila the Dog is neither yawning nor practicing good intimate hygiene.

Notice I said it's not the best one. That got sent to Tiny Prints, where I am pretty sure it will clash with the border selected for the original, outdoor photo.

And if they send the proof back in a business day or two, and it miraculously looks alright, we still won't have the cards until a week and a half from now.

I'm sitting here looking at the calendar and wondering whether we should just go with Green Smears and Green Hair.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

School Daze

We can walk a few blocks from our front stoop to an excellent public elementary school.

Another exceptionally good public school sits less than a mile away. Its neighborhood is dodgier and its enrollment higher, but the school is a great choice nonetheless, based on the strength of its academics, tremendous parent involvement, and the diversity of its student body.

The Grape's chances of being accepted to one of these public elementary schools: about seventy per cent, probably a bit less, according to the communications office of Boston Public Schools.

Our city's school assignment system, a relic of the days of forced integration and busing, plays out like a kind of Reverse Hunger Games every winter. Parents put in their ranked choices and hope their kid's number hits. BPS announces lottery results in March, around the same time private schools mail their decisions.

Last night, I attended a meeting to learn how our city's New Lousy Lottery System (touted in the planning phases as a Quality Choice Plan) differs from our city's Previous Lousy Lottery System.

Answer (for me): our picture grew slightly grimmer. There's a great public elementary school, arguably the crown jewel of the entire elementary BPS system, for which we cannot submit the Grape's name, because it sits outside our new zone.

With the new system, the computer takes our address and generates a list of about a dozen schools from which we select our lottery choices. Proponents say the new plan levels the playing field a little, and perhaps it does, because every child's list must include at least two schools with MCAS (standardized test) scores in the top quartile of the city.

To be fair, the news isn't all terrible. Boston features quite a few good public schools; many American urban areas have none.

But still: Neither R. nor I must live in the city for work. Neither of us puts in eighty-hour weeks in a downtown office building. Because if we did, I'd pony up for private school to hedge our lottery chances and keep a hairy commute off the table.

City life costs a lot. I love urban living, and have been a devoted city gal since I fell in love with London as an exchange student at age 19. Yet Brookline, a mile or so away, offers some of the very best public schools in the nation, in a very cosmopolitan town. Their schools, and those in nearby suburbs like Wellesley, Lexington, Weston and many other towns, could probably go toe to toe with the best elementary schools in the world.

Here's the bottom line, for me, and you can call it snobbery, or white privilege, but it won't change my mind: I will not send the Grape to Kindergarten at eleven of the thirteen schools from which we must select our lottery choices. 

Yes, I know one of the very nearby underperforming schools just got a boatload of "turnaround" funds and a snazzy new principal. But even the most adept captain cannot turn a faltering barge of that size around by September. I understand that pockets of excellence exist in the schools ranked in the nondescript middle.

I *want* to believe in the public schools. I believe the government has an obligation to provide all the nation's children with a quality education, so that they can grow up to be productive citizens who get good jobs and pay into Social Security. I'd rather pony up to build preschools than prisons. And I believe that if privileged people don't use the public schools, those schools will never improve. On a personal level, I also know the Grape will be a good reader, wherever I send him, because he gets that at home.

But, when push comes to shove, I'm not willing to throw my only child to the wolves, by which I mean, he's not going to a less than excellent kindergarten if I can help it. (Maybe if I had six kids, I'd send a few as test cases, but I digress.)

Last night's panel on the new lottery was quite tame, largely because the panel was hosted and moderated by a wily and clever local realtor. You could see him counting the commissions as many well-meaning, progressively minded moms and dads did the same math I did after hearing the lottery details, and walked away saying, "Maybe we should high tail it to the burbs after all."

A move looks likely for us, and we'll be looking at a few private school options here in the city as well—something I swore I wouldn't do—so yes, Boston girlfriends, I'll take that helping of crow now, with a good sported smile. Maybe I had my head in the sand. Maybe I thought the odds were better, or that the wait lists always panned out.  But I can't justify counting on "a seventy per cent chance of getting one of my top three choices."

This isn't rash thinking. I've gone to enough of these meetings, and read enough, over the past year to know that nothing changes fast, and that BPS is a large, intractable beast with great glimmers of hope around certain appendages. So if, in the words of Charles Dickens, these shadows don't change, the Grape probably won't start kindergarten at Boston Public.

We could wait until March to do anything, see how the lottery goes, and then make decisions, but I feel the need to at least research other options now. So that's where we stand: Research phase.


I've learned to recognize the types you normally encounter at meeting regarding the Boston Public Schools. Since some of my girlfriends found it funny, I'll share:

  • Charter School Guy or Lady: Avante garde looking industrialist who thinks the answer is privatization, largely on the taxpayer dime, of course. The jury is out nationally on charter schools; they rise and fall an awful lot on the strength of principals. Many seem like cults of personality. Some outliers outperform public schools and get spots on 60 Minutes, but too many don't even do as well. Teacher burnout is WAY HIGH, and many charters lack veteran teachers. Still, I'm not going to sit in my South End condo and tell a mom from Roxbury that she shouldn't have charters as a choice. I just don't think we need to go so far as to have "Third Grade Brought to You By Bank of America." Expansion of charters is an area that needs further discussion, and it's not a magic bullet fix.

  • Union Buster Dad: Thinks complaining loudly about the "lazy, entitled, underperforming, pension grubbing" teachers will make the citizens rise up and drive the union away with pitchforks. Never going to happen in this town, buddy. Whether teachers should have a union is a fascinating academic question with arguments on both sides, but the fact is they do, and constantly pissing off the people who spend thirty plus hours a week with our children seems like a lousy approach to public policy. 

  • Matron of Teacher's Union: Old battle axe who has seen it all and thinks (rightly) that time in the trenches is worth something. I agree, but I don't believe it's worth everything. Could totally take Union Buster Dad in arm wrestling. Wary of giving anything because of concerns about flood gates opening.

  • Those Who Believe A Longer School Day Will Fix Everything: I personally hold these in the highest contempt of all. They are less belligerent that Union Buster Dad, but they share some of the same ideas. Often includes pandering politicians running for office. This group also overlaps a bit with certain Harried BPS Reps. For what it's worth (not a lot): I am a hundred plus per cent AGAINST a longer school day, and if BPS lengthens the elementary school day, that will be the final straw that sends our family packing for the burbs for sure. Finland, with the best elementary schools in the world, has a WAY SHORT early elementary school day. (Their high schoolers put in much longer hours.) But I'm sorry. Six hours is enough for a five year old, who probably has a bus commute to boot. I have trouble focusing after six hours, as do most people. If you're telling me a five-year-old will do better with six and a half or seven hours of school, I'm calling bullshit. Total bullshit. Now, if you want to lengthen the day with outdoor recreation time, and/or to serve as day care in addition to teaching time to help working parents, I think that's a totally reasonable idea. But longer hours does zero to fix the basic issues: The barrier for entry to the teaching profession in America is way, way too low; most teachers don't have enough time or resources for meaningful professional development; it's too hard to cull bad teachers; too many kids enter kindergarten already way behind because of the socio-economic gap in this country; and good teachers aren't valued as professionals on our side of the pond.

  • Clueless Guy: Asks whether there is a lottery for private schools. Somehow this is always a guy. Answer, per R.: Dude, that one's called an auction.

  • Harried BPS Reps: Field impossible questions from nearly hysterical parents about why schools continue to underperform, and why many kids get assigned to underperforming schools. Offer flustered advice like, throw everything at the wall, and something acceptable will (probably, maybe, hopefully) stick.

  • Nun Dressed as Lay Person: Wears clunky cross, smiles smugly, and quietly hands out brochures on local parochial options. Again, I'm not going to tell a mom from a tough neighborhood not to look at parochial schools, because many parochial schools offer a decent basic education, along with the usual sexual repression and backward ideas on women. But the Grape will go to the nuns/brothers over my dead body. Not even then. I'll put something in my will to make extra, super duper sure. Hey. It's my blog. I'm going to tell you how I really feel.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Fun Side of Four

Despite mornings when I want to rip out my hair and run home screaming to hide under the covers, like last Friday, I love age four. The Grape at four, when he's not pitching a fit or sending me over the edge over some ridiculous demand, is really fun.

Four is articulate. Four is game. Four is still babyish enough to be really flipping cute. Check out his Halloween costume:

The Grape told me, back in September, that he wanted to be Paddington Bear for Halloween. No problem, I assured him.

A quick Google search indicated we indeed had a big problem. A Paddington movie releases in late 2014. All the old Paddington merchandise has been discontinued, presumably so the Paddington people can rake in the cash from new, movie-inspired Paddington merchandise.

I did what any not-crafty mom would do in this situation: I backpedaled. I asked the Grape, repeatedly, and at various times, over many days, what he wanted to be for Halloween. He never wavered. "Paddington," he told me again and again, with a mix of earnestness and disgust over the fact that I couldn't seem to remember this basic thing.

Even though I knew the costume would be a project, I was thrilled he a) chose a character from literature, and b) still wanted to be cute rather than ghoulish.

I don't sew. I have never owned a sewing machine, unless you count this little toy Holly Hobby one I received from a family friend for Christmas circa 1979, and promptly broke by sending my brother's winter hat through it.

I did not sew this costume.

R's mom did, and I think it came out unbearably cute (ha ha).

I'll spare you the details of our family adventure in the fabric store. Who knew the patterns were cataloged in a kind of crafty Dewey decimal system? Or that notions weren't just thoughts? Or that you had to have your stuff measured at one desk and then get in line to pay at another?

We added a sunhat in place of the bush hat (those cost huge dollars—who knew?), and yes, I caved and bought the coat (On clearance! And he can wear it all winter, and maybe next winter, too!). R. made the suitcase out of a cardboard box, brown duct tape and a handle fashioned from braided clothesline. We sacrificed a manila folder for the decal Wanted on Voyage and the tag that reads: Please Look After This Bear. Thank you.  And voila: Cute Paddington outfit complete.

The Grape had a blast walking to a Halloween party Saturday night. Passersby recognized the iconic bear and the Grape tipped his hat at some of them. On the way home (I won't say how late it was), as we stood outside by the Public Garden in search of a taxi, he fixed a few drivers who passed us by with Paddington's legendary hard stare.

I doubt they noticed, but four is fun.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Memo to Grape: We regret to inform you that you are NOT the CEO.

The Grape labors under the dual assumptions that he is the CEO of our family, and that he has veto power over any and all parental directives.

He is bossy, defiant and sometimes masterfully manipulative. These qualities may translate into executive leadership skills, someday way down the road, but for now, I don't see them as good points.

The Grape woke up this morning and declared, for not the first time, that he wants "everything he does not already have" for Christmas. Never mind that Christmas is still two months away.

When I calmly repeated, for about the millionth time, that it doesn't work that way, and that he is a very lucky boy who has way more toys than most kids, and maybe he should be grateful for all that he already has, he pitched a fit. "It does work that way. It will work that way!" he shrieked, milky Cheerios flying from his mouth. He started listing the kids he knows who have more stuff than he does.

I poured myself another cup of coffee and smugly congratulated myself as I heeded the preschool director's advice: don't engage with a child who is having a meltdown and/or acting like an entitled little twerp. (I'm taking poetic license with her directions. She has NEVER uttered the word twerp, or brat, or any applicable swearword, in my presence.) Score one for Mamma.

After the holiday demands got him nowhere, the Grape screamed and whined (back and forth in roughly 30 second intervals) the entire 13-minute walk to school, because he does not want it to be fall.

"I can't do anything about the seasons," I said, with as much brightness as I could muster. "We live in Boston. We have at least six months of chilly weather coming up and we need to deal."

"I want summer!"

"Keep moving and stop whining. By the way, you're a very lucky boy to have that nice new jacket."

"I want to go to Bermuda and stay there!" he hollered repeatedly outside busy Back Bay Station.

Maybe his recommended solution to autumn was funny and cute the first time he proposed it, as we walked through the park on a brisk late September morning.

Let me assure you, there is nothing adorable about a four-year-old crying and screaming in front of harried commuters and shivering homeless beggars at rush hour that he DEMANDS to move to Bermuda.

Parents of many children say, find his currency, and believe me, I've tried. I'm certainly not above bribing my kid, because it sometimes works. Sometimes, but not always or even most of the time. It works when I want him to do something, but not so much when I want him to stop doing something. Also, a big part of me thinks, if I, his mother, tell him to knock it off, that should be enough. Since when is he the CEO?

The other issue with bribery is that older the Grape gets, the more I worry that his currency might be actual currency, as in cold, hard cash. The Grape refuses to work for treats. He's not food driven. He rolls his eyes and openly mocks kids who will consent to work for stickers on a chart, even if they represent some delayed reward. In the moment, he doesn't give a damn that three more stars on the chart symbolize some grand prize. He will occasionally work for a new toy, and I have a pack of Matchbox cars stowed in a secure, undisclosed location, in case I get desperate.

But something else has to change, because I refuse to bribe my son with toys just for getting to school without incident.

Despite the morning's low grade fuss on continuous loop, we did make it to school on time.

Where we promptly disagreed about where to park his balance bike.

Me: "Park your bike here, where it's less it the way."

Grape: "NO!" (attempts to shove me out of his path)

Me (yelling louder than I maybe should have, considering the preschool is in a church): "Knock it off RIGHT NOW or I am taking away ALL YOUR CARS!!!"  [NOTE: This may sound nuclear, unless you've spent your morning with us, in which case you'd be wondering why it took this long for me to lose my cool. At least you would, if you know me. Patience isn't one of my virtues, though I've made modest improvement over the years.]

Me (in my head, to myself): A kid who pulled this crap back in the Dark Ages, when I was little, would have been smacked into next Tuesday.

Grape: NO!!!!  (surveys corridor, realizes he has a big audience of other parents): "I'm sad. I just need a hug." (surveys other parents' reactions and flashes me a triumphant smirk as he climbs into my lap for the requisite hug)

Clearly I need to regain control of the situation. I can't go through the school year dreading the leave-the-house-get-to-school-drop-off shuffle.

A friend who's an occupational therapist advises that when a child protests something, like leaving the playground in five minutes, for example, the parent should present a choice: "We go in five minutes or we go right now," and then enforce whichever the child chooses. Her advice: give a choice, but do not negotiate with terrorists. And make no mistake, a hysterical preschooler is a terrorist. I give her BIG credit: her tactic worked and we had a relatively uneventful play date departure.

So, with the benefit of four hours' hindsight, I think this morning I should have said, "Park the bike where I say, or I will take your bike and park it."

If I'd had a third cup of coffee, I might have put that together in the moment. Maybe it would have spared us becoming a major spectacle.

But maybe not. The toddler terrorist is like any other terrorist: you can never reliably predict when they'll strike and when they'll sit one out.

Part of me (call me old fashioned) believes the Grape, being the kid in this relationship,  should follow directions, because I said so, not because I stepped him through some process to make it feel like obeying was his idea.

Maybe it rankles me, because I really hate the  commonly repeated belief that "the way to manage men is to make them think [whatever you want] is their idea," also occasionally repeated as "The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and the neck can turn the head wherever it wants."

If I empower him with choices (albeit of my choosing), am I creating a monster down the road? One who has to think he owns every good idea? Nobody wants to work with or for that guy...

Or am I over thinking this?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

So Long, Siesta? Say it isn't so.

Today might represent a new parenting low. I bribed the Grape to take a nap. I literally took him down to our local toy shop (which has lovely things, by the way), picked out a pack of cheap little toy cars, and told him he could have them if he would take a nap.

The Grape goes to preschool four days a week, where they "rest." Rest means they lie on cots with blankets with the lights dimmed and listen to stories. Once in a blue moon, the Grape dozes off. That leaves three days a week when the Grape isn't at preschool, which he loves, but which kicks his little tail.

Until a few weeks ago, on those three at-home days of the week, he'd sleep in the afternoon like a champ, and I'd get stuff done. This space has looked abandoned in recent weeks, because I got used to using nap time once a week to fill it. I also use his naps to "catch up" on reading, not that I'll ever succeed, to pay bills, to prep dinners and generally make the household run better.

I know. He's four. Lots of four-year-olds quit the nap. But the Grape needs his. Really. I'm not saying this because I need to figure out a new time to blog. Well, not just for that reason. He turns into a hot mess if he doesn't get enough rest.

If we go too many days in a row without a nap, the situation deteriorates. It's not just the bags under his eyes, which make him look like he's fresh off the red eye. I'm talking about hour-long hysterical crying, flailing jags because he didn't get to watch all the bubbles go down the drain, or take his sweater off by himself, or eat the dessert he requested. Ridiculous, overtired stuff that folks in the medical profession evidently call "stressed and irritable behavior."

I notice these so-called experts are silent on what to do about the nap for four-year-olds. Their handy chart goes to three years, then skips to "over age 5." Lazy doctors.

Although, if you waste your child's first nap in three weeks digging around the internet, you can learn that 20 per cent of five year olds still nap. Dr. Judith Owens at the National Children's Medical Center told the NYT so for a maddening feature about when a child should give up naps. It's the kind of article that promises the secret to life and leaves you feeling unsatisfied, maybe even more confused than before.

I realize the nap's days are numbered, but I was really hoping we'd get to age five before saying arrivederci to the siesta. For both our sakes. Nobody likes living with—or presumably being—a hot, hysterical, overtired mess. And I don't have an alternate work-mom routine ready to roll out.

I already keep his school hours set aside for two things: First and foremost working on my next novel, and other writerly pursuits such as pitching and writing magazine work, and promoting my existing novelsSecond, physical exercise, which I've found keeps me sane and healthy, and is therefore a nonnegotiable aspect of my life. (I can already see the writing on the wall: I'm going to become one of those very early morning exercisers.)

I don't run errands, cook, do laundry, or call or meet friends during the hours the Grape spends at school. I don't answer the phone, much to the annoyance of my parents and perhaps some others.

I'm disciplined about my writing routine, because I fear falling down a slippery slope. I'm one bad step—a fast manicure, a coffee date with girlfriends, a swing through the grocery store—away from sabotaging my system. And it's a pretty good system. It's regimented, but it's worked for me for two years.

I have a shorter work week than I'd like (my writer's rhythm would break down best into two daily 3-4 hour stints, separated by a break), but I understand most moms don't get their perfect work schedule, or anything close to it. I'm grateful every day that I can do what I love.

So I plug along on my novel in progress at roughly half the pace my brain would like.

It works well enough for now. I have almost three-quarters of a first draft of a new novel written.

As do bribes, apparently. The Grape has been happily snoozing for two hours.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Postman Hardly Ever Rings At All

Anyone else feel disconnected from friends old and new in this era of hyper-connectivity? Anyone else feel warm, fuzzy nostalgia for the printed letter—the kind you had to sit down to compose, then stuff into an envelope and mail through the Postal Service? 

How did we let that method of communication go extinct? In our hunger for instant gratification, have we dispensed with meaningful social exchange?

For a while in the mid to late 90's and into the early 2000's, email largely replaced the posted letter. What was not to like? You didn't need a stamp, and you could correspond with, for example, multiple college friends at the same time, without composing multiple letters. We sat at keyboards, in awe of progress, and the "improvement" lasted a few years. Long distance friends exchanged lengthy email missives in lieu of waiting for the postman to deliver hand scrawled letters.

The phenomenon lasted almost a decade while email's commercial potential sat largely untapped—so much so that the leading provider at the time thought it would be a cute idea to have your computer announce, "You've got mail!" whenever a message landed in the inbox. 

But then, email became ubiquitous. I.e. Not Special, But Annoying. Really, Really Annoying. 

On any given morning, I have dozens, if not hundreds, of email messages, in various accounts, to delete unread: many asking for money, others updating me on news for which I lack bandwidth, others selling me items I don't need, others just spam that swam through the filters.

I've adapted by approaching email with a get-in and get-out attitude. It's great for setting appointments, sharing files, and blasting out invitations, but I don't want to sit in email and compose a multi-page missive to dear old friends, only to risk it getting lost in their inbox clear-outs. 

Even messages I flag for response rapidly drop from the main screen as the relentless tide of unwanted crap pours in. If you've taken the time to write me a real message, and I haven't responded, please ping me again. I didn't mean to blow you off.

Social media looked like the solution for a while, but it's not scratching the right itch. It's a great place to network, or share photos of the kids with a broad audience, but it doesn't work for the settle in with a cup of coffee to catch up kind of conversation I'm missing.

And I doubt I'm alone.

I have maybe half a dozen out-of-town girlfriends with whom I am engaged in a perpetual game of Phone Tag. 

The usual stuff gets in the way: conflicting schedules, kids that need watching, time zone issues, and plain old exhaustion at the end of the day. I've started to wonder if letter writing might prove more efficient. At least we'd get to exchange news in a thoughtful, present manner. 

Frankly, most of the time, I can't answer calls because either I've set aside the precious hours while the Grape is at school to write, or the Grape is home and will self-destruct if I give my full attention to a phone conversation. I offer as evidence the last time I tried to make a dental appointment. During the four minute call, I reminded the Grape that I was on the phone, and that he needed to wait until I was done, at least three times.

I used to love the phone and now I hate it, because I can't give the person on the other end my full attention when my kid is present. The resulting conversations feel scattered, rushed, cursory roundups of the main life headlines, and sometimes leave me feeling like I just gorged on junk food instead of savored a long awaited feast of catching up. 

Which is not to say it isn't great to hear the voice of an old friend, because it is. Always.

But I wonder, if instead of grumbling at the next inevitable round of missed calls, and messages that say, "I'd love to talk... Let's keep trying..." I might boldly go back in time. I might put pen to paper, power through the inevitable hand cramp, and write a few old-fashioned letters. 

One of these nights. After the Grape goes to bed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We've GOT to make noises in greater amounts!

Massachusetts Moms (and other concerned voters): What are you doing after school drop off this Friday?

I'm channeling the Mayor of Who-ville, who ran through his town, telling the ordinary citizens: "We've GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So open your mouth... For every voice counts!" —Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who!

Which is another way of saying: I'm going to join Moms Demand Action here in Boston, for our state legislature's last scheduled public hearing on gun violence prevention.

Why? Because I support comprehensive common sense gun violence prevention legislation and I'm tired of being drowned out by a loud and vocal minority.

Under 13 per cent* of Massachusetts voters own guns, but the legislators hear them loud and clear, because they're organized and vocal.

Almost nine months after the massacre of first graders at Newtown, our state representatives are finally poised to act.

The hearing, which will take place in the Massachusetts State House's Gardner Auditorium, officially starts at 10 a.m. on Friday, September 13, but Moms Demand Action is encouraging those who are able to arrive closer to 9 a.m., because they expect lines at the entrance. Moms Demand Action will have signs and stickers for you. 

Massachusetts is already a leader in terms of common sense gun violence prevention legislation, but we can and must do better. Many legislators introduced a variety of bills after Newtown, and a key purpose of the public hearings is to craft a comprehensive bill for the consideration of both the MA House of Representatives and the State Senate.

A few of the common sense measures under consideration include:

  • Universal background checks for ALL gun purchases, including all private sales, no exceptions
  • Stricter penalties for violations of existing laws
  • Prohibition of high capacity magazines (like the ones used by Adam Lanza)
  • Mandatory liability insurance for gun owners
The gun lobby—the NRA—must not be the only voices our elected representatives hear. At the last hearing, the gun lobby bussed in roughly 300 Smith & Wesson employees, who got the day off from work to hear their boss testify. It sounds like a lot of people at a state house hearing, but remember, that crowd of attendees represents less than thirteen per cent of the electorate. They're just well organized. 

We moms, who stand for common sense laws to protect our children, who may not be politically active most of the time, can and must do better. 

So let's pack the Gardner Auditorium on Friday. Don't be shy about bringing your little ones.

Your representatives need to see that you care, that you won't be bullied by those who dismiss you as "just a mom." 

* Violence Policy Center says 12.8 percent of MA households own one or more firearms. Gun Owners of America (a gun lobby group) knows that gun owners are a minority: according to their statistics, 36 percent of households nationwide own one or more firearms. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

He's a Watcher

I'm a plunger and my kid is a watcher. For better or worse, I'm good at making big decisions. I forge forward, sometimes too fast for my own good. I don't like taking no for an answer, and when I get knocked down, I have a tendency to hop back onto the horse. This last trait—which distills to basic stubbornness—I share with my son. The others, not so much.

I work against the urge to rush him every day, often with a forced smile and gritted teeth.

I was never the last one in, the rotten egg. My kid is, almost always.

All children teach their parents patience. Mine is just extra cautious, and oblivious to my innate need to be on time, to respect schedules. I think it's the Finnish genes; we are a punctual people. I'm hard wired to hurry, so it's not the easiest thing for me to have a pontificating kid.

I'm even like this on vacation. I may love to relax on the beach for hours on end, but I also want to be the first person on the beach, to extract every possible minute of luxurious vacation, even if it means rocketing into motion at an inhuman hour.

True confession: it took me a year to realize that when I was with the infant Grape, what I was "accomplishing" was child care. I started each week with these (mostly secret but highly ambitious) to do lists and ripped my hair out when items lingered day after day.

Four years on, I've learned to adjust my expectations, to slow down, to think of little children like the very elderly: they can only handle so many activities during a day before hitting a wall, and often "so many" equals one.

The Grape, since infancy, has been a careful kid. "He's a watcher," a seasoned music teacher informed me at our first class, as the other babies scrambled for the simple percussion instruments while the Grape sat and stared from the comfort of my lap.

So while other parents jubilantly send their kids back to school, I brace for a rough emotional September.

The Grape likes to think things through before forging ahead. He walked late, at almost sixteen months, but when he finally took those first steps he was off at a trot. None of the stumbling and falling business for the Grape.

My kid doesn't want to do anything until he's decided he can. It was the same way with the toilet. He refused until he was totally ready, and then trained cold turkey in one weekend at the age of two months shy of four. Upsides: Single digit accidents, no disgusting plastic potty, no reward chart, no should-we-put-him-in-pull-ups-today-because-we're-leaving-the-house-for-over-an-hour parental wavering. In retrospect, I highly recommend waiting.

His timid tendencies are maddening when we go to some activity with a limited time frame. As he's warming up to skiing, or swimming, or singing, or whatever, everyone else is winding down. Two years running, he's let a friend blow out his birthday candles because he can't summon the nerve.

(I can see how caution might serve him well, especially if his wariness of new experiences and/or surroundings persists into the teen years. Nothing scares me as a parent more than kids and cars. I think if I had one of those damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead kids, I'd need a sedative to get through the first years of driving. Heck, I might need one anyway. Or maybe we'll move to some huge city where nobody keeps a car and sidestep the issue. But I digress.)

Today the Grape and I went to check out the four-year-old room at his preschool. He knows the other kids. He's met the teachers in passing. He twitched with excitement on the way to the school, marched himself right up to the door, and froze.

He spent a full six minutes skulking in the hallway, mustering the courage to step into a room full of children and parents he already knows.

At this point, I know better than to try to cheer him onward. The Grape meets any attempts at parental encouragement with silent disdain, or worse, with the astonishing directive he favors of late: "Don't worry about me." Yes, I cringe whenever he pulls that out in public.

Of course, once he plunged forward, he had a ball. I had to drag him out of there when the open house ended.

This doesn't mean tomorrow, the first official day, will go smoothly. The Grape, I can assure you, will not have a first day of school photo in which he waves, happy and carefree, at the camera.

He's more likely to channel Woody Allen: stare at his shoes, shuffle forward reluctantly, offer up a litany of silly and neurotic reasons why going to school on that prescribed day isn't the world's greatest idea. And that's the best case scenario.

For now, all we need to do is get through the first day of preschool re-entry on Thursday. He's already worried. He wants to know he won't need to stay for rest time on the first day. (He won't. The preschool does short days for the first week.)

Maybe I should be tougher, but I can't help thinking, he's still so little. If he wants to ease into the pool instead of diving without checking for water first, I guess I can let him have that.

Even if it means he's the last one in.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deep fried disgrace

Now that the Grape is four, he knows how to behave in restaurants. So I tell myself. I must be delusional.

It's not like we haven't had loads of practice. The kid knows how to behave. He sometimes chooses not to. 

An urban kid, the Grape has dined out about once a week for his whole life. He's a pro who knows the drill. He's bungled through Michelin rated dinners* without serious incident. He's charmed proprietors and gotten himself invited to meet chefs and view kitchens. Strangers have—more than once—crossed crowded dining rooms to compliment me on my son's behavior. He even has a regular table, a favorite waiter, and a usual order at the best Italian place in our hood.

All of this makes the parental humiliation exponentially more acute when he leaves an ordinary lunch date in disgrace. Pride, they say, goes before the fall.

Today the Grape and I went on a spontaneous lunch date with a friend and her son, who's about a year the Grape's junior. We walked into a new neighborhood spot, a casual bar and grill that opened last week. They're still getting the kinks out, and so it seems, is the Grape.

He's rarely the oldest kid around, so maybe he seized too enthusiastically on the opportunity to show off. His friend, who's small for his age and can still get away with baby behavior in the eyes of strangers, found his antics hysterical. 

But still, blowing milk through his straw at me, and the table, and his friend, crosses  gallops over the line into unacceptable territory. His three-year-old friend, for what it's worth, found the stunt hilarious, and mimicked the Grape's abysmal manners with no small amount of glee.

The sanguine, unflappable child rearing experts say that the parent must remain calm in the face of unwelcome behavior. 

Fine. I didn't lose my cool just because the Grape was spewing his drink all over the establishment, and cackling with delight while doing so. 

I did start wishing that we'd come in at early dinner hour instead of at lunch. Maybe if the other patrons were loaded, they wouldn't notice my maniacal little monster.

I issued a stern warning. The Grape ignored me. His friend laughed. I told the Grape he was going to get a consequence if he didn't stop this instant. Milk flew into my face again and sprayed all over the gleaming new table. 

I asked myself, as sort of a gut check, "Would my own mother have put up with this behavior? This utter meltdown of discipline?"

I took the milk and straw away.

The Grape howled like I was stabbing him repeatedly with my fork. He kicked and flailed and screamed, and lurched onto the table as if afflicted with a rare seizure disorder. In retrospect, I'm surprised nobody called 9-1-1.

His little friend continued playing with his own drink and straw in a display of preschool solidarity. His mom started pleading with him for better behavior, in a sort of desperate but earnest stage whisper.

The waitstaff, including two trainees who had no job on the lunch shift other than to shadow their experienced colleagues, stopped and stared. I could see what they were thinking, as clearly as if they'd have cartoon conversation balloons floating over their collective heads. It's the same thing all those so-called experts would ask:

Isn't he too old for tantrums?

Of course he's too old for tantrums. He doesn't have them at home, and they're not toddler tantrums in the sense that he hasn't lost control of his emotions, nor is he frustrated because he cannot express himself clearly. Whatever his faults, the Grape doesn't struggle with verbal expression.

The Grape's tantrums constitute the most powerful weapon in his four-year-old arsenal—a nuclear option he deploys only when he really wants to dig in.

How can I be sure? They never happen at home, no matter how tired and/or frustrated the Grape gets, and they never happen without a large public audience. He plays his big scenes for sellout crowds only.

The four-year-old tantrum exists to let everyone within a half-mile radius know that I've lost control.

The experts say thou shalt not give in to tantrums. I challenge any one of those experts to sit in a fairly busy restaurant—even a casual one without tablecloths and with highchairs—and ignore a medium-small child throwing his thirty-four pounds around the banquette while shrieking at the top of his lungs that he wants milk.

A jumble of thoughts flew through my mind:

Shouldn't bars have loud music to drown out disturbances? Is it too late to order a stiff drink? Remind me again why smacking your offspring is illegal? 

I dragged the Grape's flailing form outside as our order arrived. The tantrum stopped the second we stepped out of view of the hostess stand. I gave him a speech about table manners and indoor voices, told him he'd lost his play date for the afternoon and his beloved Finnish troll videos for the rest of the week, and asked if he was going to be good if we went back inside. He blinked at me through big weepy eyes, stuck out his chin, and said no.

Why do I think he said no? I suspect he called my bluff. He knows we can't leave a restaurant without paying, and my handbag was still on that back banquette.

We marched down the gauntlet of judgmental bystanders and I made the Grape apologize to the busboy—the nearest available adult in a uniform—for good measure. He ate his food with his napkin on his head like a pirate hat—a stunt immediately duplicated by the little friend. He squirmed but held it together long enough for my friend and me to scarf our food. 

Lessons learned today: 1. Never claim your kid is good in restaurants. 2. Never, ever let anyone issue him, or anyone at the table, a straw. 3. Try to eat in restaurants far away from your residence so you never need to see the waitstaff or other customers again. A block is not remote enough.

* I didn't voluntarily bring my kid to a Michelin restaurant. I would never attempt that because I believe, at certain establishments, people are paying a lot of money for ambiance that should not include even the best-behaved child. We were someone's guests at the time of the Grape's two Michelin visits.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How I survived summer camp

I grew up on a rural road, one with more forest than houses, more cows than cars. Back in the 1970's, we were considered too remote to merit a house number; our mail came to a rural route address.

We were also fortunate to live very close to the kid friendly beaches of Narragansett Bay, and not far from the Atlantic Ocean beaches of South County.

My parents, surrounded by all this nature, didn't believe in camp.

Or perhaps more accurately, they didn't see a need for it, at least when we were little. They certainly didn't go crazy, researching various camp options.

I got sent away one summer, when I was ten or maybe eleven, to a lovely, rustic place called Alton Jones, which was located in an even more rural corner of the state. I suspect two factors played into its selection: My mom knew how to drive there, and someone she knew had sent their kids and they had survived.

Alton Jones offered swimming, canoeing, candle making, cow hugging and long walking expeditions in the woods. Their campus featured an impressive lodge-slash-dining hall where they must have offered some kind of musical entertainment in the folk tradition. The details are hazy.

What I remember most: homesickness, mosquitoes and poison ivy. The bunks smelled funky, and one perky red-headed girl got festering mouth sores from not washing her retainer.

Maybe my parents got their money's worth, because I learned three things about my ten-year-old self.

First, I learned I wasn't the type to fall head over heels in love with some eleven-year-old boy in the dining hall and spend the week alternately cooing about him and tormenting him, and I didn't have a lot of use for girls who did.

When the girls weren't chasing the boys, they liked to engage in childish playground games which primarily involved jockeying for rank based on upper body strength.

I couldn't do a handspring.

Back in 1984, this physical shortcoming constituted the playground equivalent of leprosy.

Thankfully, while I was a late bloomer, I wasn't a total moron. I had the brains to keep my headgear—which the orthodontist wanted worn every night for twelve hours—in the bottom of my suitcase for the duration of the camp week.

So because my bunkmates' hormones and biceps were in overdrive and I was still pretty much an underdeveloped little kid, and a horse obsessed one at that—and this was so NOT a horse camp—I didn't make any lasting friends.

Nor did I smoke copious amounts of pot or change the course of my life in the manner of the gang from Meg Wolitzer's bestselling novel The Interestings.

I always feel a twinge of regret when I hear about someone's (real or imagined) LIFE CHANGING, WONDERFUL, AMAZING sleep away camp experience. I know outwardly normal adult people who say meh to their high school and college reunions, but would never miss a camp reunion.

But in fairness, the kids reporting such camp based life transformations, whether at real cocktail parties or in fiction, tend to have been at least pubescent when sent to camp. I was a tween, and a naive one at that.

Second, I learned that I prefer my outdoors with some basic creature comforts. I love spending the day out in nature, but I also like hot water.

And screens. Window screens would have greatly improved my camp experience. I still have small scars on my legs and feet from the bug bites I suffered thirty years ago.

Third, I learned that most of my fellow campers spent a few years going to day camps that offered similar, outdoorsy activities in a coeducational setting before their parents loaded them into the Plymouth station wagon and abandoned them—with headgear no less—in the wilderness of  Rhode Island. Some of the kids were old pros. They showed up with arsenals of mosquito repellent, as well as sleeping bags designed for placement on surfaces other than wall to wall carpet.

Those five days felt like a month, and represented the beginning and end of my camping career. I harbor absolutely no bad feelings toward my parents as a result of my ordeal. I think, with the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, that it built character.

You'd think the great Alton Jones bust would be enough to put the kibosh on the Grape's future as a camper. But did I mention I just read devoured The Interestings?

So I'm starting him early. He goes to a day camp for the under five set, a few days a week. They go on amazing adventures all over the city and he loves it, though he's always happy to come home after lunch.

Check out the pure joy:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Birthday Cometh

The Grape turns four soon. Yesterday I asked what he'd like for his birthday.

He answered without hesitation. "Everything I don't already have."

Me: We're going to need to scale that way down. What's one thing you'd like for a birthday present?

Grape (face scrunches with intense concentration): I want a blimp.

Me: Okay. (Silently smug that for once I'll have time to track down the desired toy, even if our local toy store doesn't have it.)

Grape: A real one. Not a toy one. Those are silly.

Me: You can't have a real blimp. They're way too expensive. Think of something else.

Grape: A blimp is a good present for my birthday. (He nods as he tells me this, as if he's picked up on the negotiating tactic of nodding to stir subconscious agreement in the adverse party.)

I related the gift conversation to my mother, who's been asking for weeks what her grandson might like for a fourth birthday present. She said to tell the Grape that only corporations have blimps.

A few hours later, when the Grape renewed his request for a real blimp, I relayed this nugget, only to have the Grape say, without missing a beat, "I want a corporation."

Me: [Face palm.] You are not getting a corporation. How about a bicycle?

Gift selection isn't the only birthday minefield. The Grape has wised up to the concept of big birthday parties. I suspect this is the absolute last year I'll get away with having a family party and/or a few family friends over for ice cream cake.

The Grape knows that's the plan, but today, at birthday minus two weeks, this flies out of his mouth: "After the party with the ice cream cake, we can have another party for my whole class."

Apparently he sees no reason why his birthday shouldn't expand into a multi-day event, not unlike a wedding or the Olympic Games.

I wrote about children's birthday parties earlier this year, and my sentiments on them haven't evolved much. I'm still firmly in the they basically suck camp.

I'm also resistant to shelling out many hundreds of dollars to rent one of those My Gym places. Though I admit they do a great job. They keep the kids jumping up and down and shrieking in delight, they feed everyone, they let the parents bring in adult beverages, and most importantly, they clean up everything.  I'm also totally behind the eight ball, since they book parties months in advance.

If the day comes when I need to host the whole class, plus all their assorted siblings, it would be nice to do so in a space designed to accommodate twenty plus marauding maniacs jacked up on sugar.

It doesn't help my cause this year that we just attended one of those My Gym parties for a classmate last week. The party had a theme: Zebras and Orcas. Cute, right? I pictured plates and cups and balloons featuring the birthday boy's favorite animals.

Then I re-read the evite. The Grape's friend wanted his friends to dress up as zebras or orcas for the party.

I felt a rush of panic, because I am not crafty.

And a little betrayed, because this kid's mom seemed so delightful, so normal, so down to earth. Yet she expected me to spend a day making a papier mache zebra head that the Grape would probably refuse to wear anyway?

And I had to round up all the supplies in the middle of an epic heat wave?

All I could think (beyond the fact that I would have never in a million years pegged this mom as a glue gun wielding sadist) was that there's something reminiscent of The Godfather in any class of disembodied equine head.

And is The Godfather really appropriate for four year olds?

Not much later I felt like a weenie, for rushing to judgment. A follow up email arrived, explaining that they intended their costume directive extremely loosely, i.e. the kids could wear stripes, or black and white clothes, if they wanted.

I did one of those whole body exhales. The classmate's mom was indeed the lovely person I'd assumed she was all along. I was the goober who presumed the worst.  And I have to say, their zebra and orca cake was very cool.

That cake was so cool that the Grape asked this morning if he could have one just like it, you know, Mamma, when we have the party at My Gym, for my class.

"After my other party, Mamma," he added, his voice dripping buttercream sweetness, as if he knew he was throwing me a bone.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Don't say YAY!"

The Grape's new battle cry: "Don't say YAY, don't say good job, don't say anything!"

At the ripe age of a month shy of four, he's issued an edict banning celebrations of accomplishments major and minor. No gleeful clapping when he swims a few strokes. No acknowledgement when he finishes his peas or aims all the tinkle into the toilet.

At first I thought his ban on positive reinforcement was a weird quirk, a silly phase that would pass, that we'd forget within weeks. But it's had some staying power. R. and I are going on three months of our attempts at positive reinforcement being met with withering negative reinforcement, dished up with no small amount of insistence by our pint sized tyrant.

This Saturday I had an epiphany: I suspect the Grape is embarrassed to be the littlest/most sheltered member of our circle of friends. Of course he isn't technically the youngest person we know. We know many babies. But among the friends we see most often, the Grape is usually the smallest and youngest full fledged kid. (Babies don't seem to be a factor in kid world planning.)

And of the gang of "usual" kids, he's the most cautious, the one who fears the magic carpet ski lift, the one who hangs on the pool stairs because he doesn't trust that his (Coast Guard approved) floatie will allow him to join his pals in the deeper water, the one who needs to hold my hand during the Winnie the Pooh Movie when the Backson appears. He is not a see-you-later-Mom-I'm-off-to-the-races kind of child.

Children with older siblings get world wise a lot faster than their only child contemporaries. They have to keep up with the program, for starters, and I suspect many second and subsequent kids are held to higher self sufficiency standards than their parents' firstborns ever had to meet. They feed themselves, dress themselves and learn to soothe themselves at a more tender age than the oldest in the family.

One area where my highly unscientific playground observations indicate that many first borns excel: self entertainment. First born kids learn to play by themselves because there's no built in older sibling to follow around. A lot of very experienced moms I know (ones with children in high school or older) assure me there's truth the to stereotype that the oldest is the likeliest to devour books for fun.

These anecdotes reassure me, but they do nothing to help with the paradox at hand: the Grape is babyish, but he feels like a baby for being babyish. And I'm part of the problem, because I subscribe to the "he's only little for a short time, so let's keep him innocent as long as possible" school of thinking.

The Grape doesn't know about the existence of evil. I kept him out of the loop when bombs went off on the block that houses his preschool. He got nightmares for a week when my mom's pastor made some reference, during a children's Easter sermon, to "the bad guys" (i.e. Roman soldiers from 2000 years ago) who "took Jesus away" (i.e. arrested and executed the hero of the tale). All this unfolded with the help of a colorful souvenir story cube. We had to get rid of the thing because the Grape became obsessed with the bad guys. "Why are they bad?" he ask me, over and over. Scratch visiting church on high holidays off the list of safe family activities.

Evil, I've reasoned, is something we will confront when we must. Not electively.

This Saturday, a group of friends went to see a matinee showing of the cartoon movie Despicable Me 2. I agonized for two weeks about letting the Grape go, polled friends on whether they were letting their youngest kids see the movie, drove them nuts by asking again and again—because, I mean, it got a PG. I had to know, WHY did a cartoon get a PG? Are there realistic looking guns in it? Do the characters say the F-word? Does someone die onscreen, and if so, of what cause?

I scoured reviews and even considered hiring a sitter so I could pre-screen the film and make an informed decision.

Could I, in good conscience, send the Grape, who fears the Backson, a colorful figment of Owl's imagination, into a dark, crowded, cavernous theater for the first time in his short life to be scarred for life scared?

I decided, at the last minute, that I could. Or rather that R. could. I wasn't about to buy three movie tickets when I thought the chances were 50/50 that we'd make it through. So I stayed behind with a friend and her newborn.

In the end, the Grape was afraid of parts of the movie, but he held his father's hand and toughed it out and was so happy to be there with his friends. He emerged into the warm summer evening looking really proud of himself, and I felt a twinge of regret for missing his first movie.

"Don't say good job," was all he had to say to me before he ran off to play with his friends. And that was the moment I got it. He's trying to say, "Don't act so surprised and proud, Mamma, when I do things everyone else can already do."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Dear readers: I'm sorry I haven't written in a few weeks. The Grape and I were traveling for much of that time to a faraway land without WiFi.

Actually, we spent most of the time in Finland, a technology advanced, highly connected country, where (very expensive) WiFi is apparently available everywhere but at my local library. (I suspect their wizened PC computers disliked my Mac.)

In hindsight, I realize that I should have hung out a closed for vacation sign, and I apologize for not doing so.

Now that I'm back, and re-connected to my own (only moderately costly) internet, I have a confession to make.

I liked unplugging.

And maybe, on some level, I found the exercise necessary. If I can live without indoor plumbing, as we did for a week of the trip, I can survive without social media.

For three weeks, I checked email about every other day from my phone, but I  didn't look at Facebook, or the many blogs I love, or even the NYT website.* I resisted the faint urge to upload and share photos of our vacation experiences in real time.

I didn't feel the slightest itch. If anything, I was reluctant to dive back in; I kept my phone shut off for a full sixteen hours after we landed back at Logan.

The Grape gets very little "screen time." He's not in full Waldorf style blackout, but all shows are pre-negotiated, most days he doesn't see any television at all, and he gets zero play around on screen gadgets time. The poor little guy has no idea my iPad features access to thousands of children's games. I just don't buy that apps and games aimed at his age group have "educational" value.

I'm not a saint about it. I have no shame about "turning on the babysitter" when I have adult company and an antsy tot. Once every few weeks, we make popcorn for family movie night. But to the Grape, those video splurges constitute special treats.

I'm not alone in my mistrust of the screen. Several teachers of young children have told me that they can tell immediately which children come from homes where the TV is always on, and let's just say it's not because those kids are achievers.

But if the television, or screens more generally, harm children's attention spans, then maybe periodic breaks from the electric flashing glow are good for the entire family.

While I go weeks without turning on the TV, I'm an info addict. I never go longer than a few hours without checking email and the headlines, and I've noticed that when I go dark on social media, sales of my books slump.

This last fact mystifies me, since I don't tweet compulsively, or even regularly, about my work. I don't keep up with the latest and edgiest messaging services. If anything, my Twitter presence should be hurting book sales since I'm forthright on many hot button topics, particularly gun control and women's rights. And elephants.

For all the advice out there for writers to "stay on message" and "avoid inflammatory subjects," I've found that a significant numbers of readers either like, or at least don't mind, that I happen to have opinions on subjects besides contemporary fiction.

Perhaps my periodically tweeted heartbreak over the plight of Africa's elephants mitigates my "controversial" opinion that firearms should be tightly regulated, whereas female reproductive organs should not.

Or maybe readers just like that I regularly tweet praise for other writers' work, and tweet about reading in general. Or maybe they like that I say what I really think. Or maybe they neither notice or care and the social media/sales connection is a total fluke.

There's no way to know for sure.

There's something frenetic—anxiety stoking, even—about the constant, immediate connection that I accept as a fact of modern life. But from this point forward I'm unplugging during vacations. I miss less, and enjoy myself and my kid more, when I don't have one eye on the phone.

How about you? Have you ever unplugged? Did you love it or loathe it?

*I made one exception to my world wide web blackout: I followed the news of DOMA's fall on Twitter. The Finnish state television news coverage was too brief to allow for proper savoring of that great moment in American history.

Monday, June 17, 2013

School's out for the summer

The Grape is one day into week two of summer vacation, that traditional break in the school year also known in our house as the three months during which Mamma gets close to no work done. Today he asked when he could go back to school.

The novelty of leaving the three-year-old room for good has worn off. He's ready to see his friends and resume his routine. "If we're not going on vacation, why do I have vacation?" he asked at breakfast today.

"So you can enjoy the summer, and the good weather."

"But are we going somewhere or not?"

Evidently the beautiful Italian concept of dolce far niente is lost on the Grape.

I will note that last week, on the beaches and in the kiddie pools of Bermuda, the Grape registered no complaints. Indeed he burst into loud tears of bitter grief when I told him we had to check out of the hotel. He sobbed in my arms in that way-too-warm kiddie pool for the better part of a half hour (which is a long time in kid time). The father of a much bigger child who was also playing in the pool came running towards us with alarm, apparently ready to throttle his own son for injuring the Grape—because any child crying so hard must be physically hurt.

Basically the Grape takes an active view of vacations. The way he sees it: If we aren't vacationing, shouldn't he be in school?

I admit, with no small amount of shame, that the question has crossed my mind.

I'm embarrassed to tiptoe into such territory, because I was a kid who loved summer, largely because my family was in a position to make sure my summer breaks were idyllic. I remember long days swimming at the beach (we lived near the shore), riding bikes (and later, horses) on rural roads with friends, eating strawberries until my stomach hurt, staying out with friends from early morning until sunset.

I remember my parents putting my brother and me in the car and taking us to Pizza Hut on the hottest nights, not because they enjoyed the food, but because that restaurant had by far the coldest air conditioning of any establishment in our town. Back then, during the early eighties, we had one rattling window unit in our house, installed inexplicably in an upstairs study where nobody slept but the dog.

I want the Grape to have that. Maybe not the meat locker Pizza Hut or the rattling window unit, but the rest of it. To have the feeling that the summer stretches forever, one lazy unscheduled day melting into another, the freedom to just be a kid.

As I look back with smiling nostalgia on sunburns and Noxema, swimming lessons and fireflies, fast melting ice cream treats and roasted marshmallows, I realize that those memories don't date as far back as my preschool years.

More importantly, now that I understand how privileged my friends and I were, I wonder whether lower income city kids, or poor rural kids sweating the dog days out in the middle of nowhere, feel as warm and sunny about summer vacations gone by.

Still, I see two separate questions:

First: Should kids too young to appreciate a three-month summer vacation get a three-month summer vacation? Why not keep the little people on their regular routine? It's pre-school, not medical school: If you want to pull your kid out for a few weeks in the summer to do whatever you traditionally do, it won't matter from an educational perspective. Why rock the routine just because the big kids are on break?

Second: Should any kids get the three month break my friends and I enjoyed? Many school districts nationwide are considering year-round public school, because some, though not all, studies show that most kids forget a lot of material during the summer months and the problem could be moderated with a longer school year.

I'm skeptical that year-round school alone would do much to close the achievement gap. Most, if not all, other developed nations give their students a long seasonal break. How we Americans spend on education, not which days the kids sit in class, seems to be the key to the achievement gap.

But consider: Summer vacation is a total logistical nightmare for many working parents. For now, I resign myself to working very little during school breaks, because writing doesn't bring in enough dollars to justify paying for seasonal childcare (yet).

I know I'm one of the lucky minority of parents who has a choice. I'm only hurting/slowing my own career by slowing down for the whole summer; I'm not depriving my family of any necessity.

Before you email me to say writers need distance and time, let me say that I believe fervently in the value of downtime and vacation and taking a step back. I think the Europeans have the right idea on vacation time. I wish more Americans could take multiple vacations every year. I just don't think twelve consecutive weeks away from my desk is in my professional best interest.

I think the call for year round school to ease parental scheduling is a red herring. Shouldn't we instead be working towards universal child care for all parents? After all, lack of affordable, high quality care for small kids keeps talented women out of the workforce.

I know many moms who frantically cobble together a series of camps, day care stints and semi-willing elderly relatives to cover their childcare needs during working and commuting hours for the months of June, July and August. Many camps fill up early; some of this planning happens as far as a year in advance of the last day of school.  It might be easier for working parents to manage a series of shorter vacations spread throughout the year. Or not. But certainly, it's a question worthy of discussion.

I'm not ready to come out in favor of year-round school for all. Mostly for nostalgic reasons, and for the desire to let the Grape stay a carefree, innocent kid for as long as possible. I think a non-structured summer helps serve that goal.

One last point to consider: The long summer vacation attracts a good number people to teaching. That huge perk makes up, partly and imperfectly, for the lack of pay and prestige afforded to teachers in this country.

How about it? Are you for or against year-round school and why?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Program

This March I wrote about all the things to celebrate about turning forty.

There's one thing that's not so great. Somewhere during the twilight of my thirties, in the final approach to that much maligned milestone birthday, my metabolism hit a wall.

Looking back, it was a perfect storm, but still, it snuck up on me.

First, because of a chronic health issue, whatever water weight I carry causes the scale to swing pretty wildly from week to week. I've joked with other mommy friends that I don't care so much about looking great naked, but it would be nice to look good while fully dressed. Which means it would be preferable to yoyo in a lower weight range.

Second, the Grape is a waif. He's no longer tiny to the extent that causes the pediatrician alarm, but his weight has never made it out of the tenth percentile for his age group. I spend significant time and resources trying to sneak calories into him, mostly by cooking heavier, "comfort food" dishes that rarely featured on my pre-kid menu.

Third, I love  loved to run. I blew out my knee while pushing the jogging stroller and pulling Lila the Dog along an unpaved path. After surgery and many months of PT, I still can't even jog. I've spent much of the past two years in a sulk about how lame all the accessible (i.e. easy to do at/near home or gym) modes of exercise are, compared to running. I got stuck in an exercise rut. I would spend forty minutes, three or four times a week, on the despised Elliptical trainer without breaking a sweat.

As I faced forty, there was no denying my clothes didn't fit as nicely as they had three years ago. The Grape issued a major wake up call when he declared my tummy "so nice and soft" in front of several friends. I started weighing myself at the gym, almost every day for a month, and unsurprisingly, my weight fluctuated as it has for a few years now.

But I realized the high point of my weight yoyo was an astonishing fifteen pounds heavier than the yoyo high point before I had the Grape.

I decided that couldn't possibly be healthy, and I believe that parents of young children have an obligation to try to be healthy in order to be able to stick around for their kids for as long as possible.

I had to do something, and fast, because summer clothes forgive far less than sweaters and coats.

I amped up my work outs. I took two strength training classes a week and intensified my cardio regime. I made a rule against skipping exercise: I'd only exercise on the days I eat. I'd let myself count a long, brisk walk as the day's workout, but only once or twice a week. Puttering outdoors with the Grape, while good for the mind, would not count as exercise. Yoga would, but only if the class veered more athletic than meditative. So great. More sweat, less tummy. Right?


I had to reckon with the sticky, icky part: Food. At forty, I had to face up to the fact that food and I have had a great run. Fantastic, even. I was a very lucky young person, with good metabolism. I never struggled with, or even thought much about, weight. For thirty-six or thirty-seven years, I could drink. I could eat dessert.

Clearly something had to change in order for those fifteen pounds to go. I decided to use an app to track calories for a month. It was a drag at first, but if you're one of the (probably millions of) moms who'd like to nix the mama tummy, I highly recommend the exercise. It was really eye opening.

If you ask R. what my new diet program entails, he'd say, "She doesn't eat and then she screams a lot because her stomach is eating itself." He swears he doesn't care about my figure one way or another, and I (mostly) believe him.

But it's not about him. It's about me. Which is fortunate, because I think any woman who feels the need to diet, or undergo surgery, to please anyone but herself needs therapy. Lots of therapy.

I joke that we have his and hers diets in our house.

Her diet involves cutting most alcohol, sweets, dairy and bread, while eating only fish, eggs, beans, vegetables and fresh fruit, with the occasional pasta dish thrown in so the whole family can eat the same thing together. I drink wine, but only while out with friends or entertaining. No more glass while cooking, glass with dinner, glass to unwind.

His involves switching to light beer.

If this unfair, sexually discriminatory system results in him losing more weight than I without even trying, I will probably require a prescription antidepressant.


I'm one month into this thing I call "the program."

The tally: Three epic diet dinner failures, one of which was so not my fault. Seriously. I visited a book club that selected one of my novels. They mixed Cosmos and baked delectable pastries in my honor. Diet or no diet, I am not going to behave like a weird, picky artist of the variety who only drinks bottled water and eats celery and cucumbers. That leaves twenty-seven good days. Nine pounds down, six to go.

Here's what surprised me most: it really, truly hasn't been that bad. I thought dieting for the first time ever would be awful, but late spring turns out to be a great time to diet because the produce is starting to get better, it's nice weather to grill, and lighter dishes appeal in hot weather. I probably wouldn't have started "the program" during the holidays, or during a major vacation, because I would have been setting myself up to fail.

I still might be setting myself up for disappointment. We travel a bit in the summer, and diets seem harder away from home. Something tells me the last couple of pounds might prove more stubborn than than the first few.

Here's the good news for all my fellow mamas who find themselves frowning at their bellies come swimsuit season. If I can do it (I kind of don't go in for self-denial)—and if mom to four, lifelong exercise hater and social media maven Nina Badzin can do it—you can too.

But only if you want to, for yourself.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Last Monday in May

I hope you all had a restful and happy long weekend. Holidays are particularly precious here in the States, as we have so few official ones compared to many of our friends abroad. This Memorial Day weekend was a pretty much a big wet bust here in New England, in terms of kicking off the beach season, but Monday itself was glorious and sunny. We took full advantage by getting outdoors and barbecuing with friends.

It's easy to get so heady over an actual paid day off (assuming you don't work in retail, hospitality or emergency services) that we forget the reason behind the Memorial Day holiday.

Which is unsurprising. These days, I feel like people either know lots of service members or they don't know any. We're in the latter camp, which is why this post didn't run Monday. As a non-military mom, I felt uneasy wading into this territory.

But everyone should be concerned with the lot of our soldiers. Not just military families, who already have so much on their plates.

I confess I hadn't given much thought to Memorial Day beyond whether we'd get to hit the beach or not, until a woman I know from my gym mentioned that her twenty-something-year-old son is serving in Afghanistan. He's an officer stationed somewhere near Kandahar, and last week he had the grim task of writing four families to tell them their sons/husbands/dads, young men in his command, would be coming home in coffins.

I started to wrack my brain, trying to come up with some remotely close friend or family member currently engaged in active military service. My tally: one. One of my best college friends is married to a Major in the Army Reserves. He recently returned from a one year deployment to Djibouti (deployment motto: Not Much Fun, But Way Better Than Kandahar).

Whenever we mark the last Monday in May, or the troops suffer a particularly large number of casualties within a short time frame, pundits and politicians wax on about shared sacrifice in resolute tones—for the length of a 24-hour news cycle.

From where I'm sitting, I don't see much in the way of shared sacrifice.

I see a small number of military families shouldering an obscene burden. I wonder how many are crumbling under the strain of their disproportionate slice of national duty. The uncertainty, not just about whether their family members will return alive, but with what injuries, and with what chances of being sent back to the war zone over and over again, must exact a staggering emotional toll.

I'm not arguing for a draft. As a mother to a young son, I would never propose such a thing lightly.

But maybe the last Monday in May should cause us to consider some questions about our national priorities:

How many deployments can or should we reasonably expect of any given soldier at a time when military suicides are at an all time high? Or how long should those combat scarred soldiers be forced to wait for meaningful mental health services upon returning home? If we're going to live in a state of perpetual war, a state the Commander-in-Chief recently acknowledged was untenable, do we need to re-visit the draft? Or lower standards for admission to the all volunteer fighting force? Should we impose some type of wartime tax surcharge on top incomes to help pay veterans' medical costs? Is it time to follow the model of many western nations and institute some kind of mandatory national service for citizens in their late teens?

And this one: What percentage of the adult citizenry even knows we are at war? (I have no idea, but I bet it's not a super-majority.)

At the same time, certain war hawks screech for military action in Syria, a country torn to shreds by a bloody civil war with no end in sight. My heart aches for the mothers losing their children in the ever-more-brutal slaughter, and I understand some of the arguments against letting the country dissolve into a group of warring fiefdoms. Bashar al-Assad is a brute of the worst kind and I hope he rots in a special part of hell, but I'm firmly against sending someone else's sons and daughters to remove him, to create another power vacuum in the Middle East, to embark on another ill-advised and costly fool's errand to invade a foreign country that hasn't attacked us (see, e.g., Iraq, Invasion of).

I find nothing in national discourse so repugnant, so viscerally disgusting, as actively draft-dodging politicians who want to send someone else's children to fight someone else's war.

Sadly chicken hawks abound in Washington. They're usually the same guys who want to cut funding for the VA, where our vets must already wait two plus months for an initial appointment with a mental health professional, or slash jobs programs for returning vets, who remain unemployed in disproportionately high numbers relative to the rest of the population.

Shouldn't Memorial Day, a day designated to honor our war dead, cause us to consider how we as a country treat their surviving brothers and sisters in arms? It seems to me that there's no better way to salute the memory of the fallen than to improve the lot of their fellow soldiers.

A discussion on real options for shared sacrifice would mean more than so many flag photos waving on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

If You Read But Your Child Doesn't Realize It, Does It Count?

Stacks of books teeter precariously all over our apartment. Built in shelves spill over. Stacks of paperbacks peek from closets and clutter counter tops. Unstable particleboard shelves, circa my college days, remain in service holding my fast growing collection of novels. 

Don't even talk to me about consigning the books themselves to some sad garage sale. I don't toss books. 

They're kind of like animals that land in my care: anything that makes it inside gets a home for life. 

Suffice to say that if we ever bid goodbye to urban living, any house we buy or build out in the boonies will have to feature a library.

While most visitors to our apartment could probably rattle off a list of more urgent home improvements— replace tired living room drapes, hang more art, re-upholster chair favored by Lucy the Kitten as nail sharpening post, replace rickety, near collapse patio furniture—my top priority, the only one about which I nag R., is more bookshelves. 

Favorite realtor, please look away now: I don't even mind if book shelves swallow a few precious square feet.

I understand I'm writing about a retro problem, but stay with me, because I have child welfare at heart.

The ladies of my book club have universally switched to ereaders. I quietly covet a Kindle. It's so light, so travel-friendly, and I believe the commercials that say it's fine for reading in full sun. I could solve my storage problems (or at least head off future ones) with a quick click. I'll be doing a bit of travel this summer, and I was actually going to cave and order a Kindle yesterday.

Until my friend A., an avid reader who tears through several books a month, mentioned that her daughter, a first grader, asked her the other day why she never reads. 

It seems the Kindle, or Nook, or iPad, to a child, counts like any other screen time.

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year  study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children's educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial. 

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here's the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count? 

I have no degree in child development, but I'd have to argue maybe not. Or at least maybe not for young children. 

Put differently, does reading The Cat in the Hat, Curious George or Madeline to your preschooler on an ereader count as much as reading a tattered, much loved paper copy?

And does it matter if your child sees you leafing through the pages of the latest by your favorite author, or swiping a screen?

I don't know the answer and I'd love to hear your thoughts.