Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's Creepy but We've Learned to Love It

This year, I caved. We have one of those creepy and weird  Elf things.

All the Grape's friends have had personal stuffed elves for years. I figured we'd missed the window when we failed to jump on the bandwagon shelf during the preschool years.

But then the Grape stopped buying my assertions that Santa's tiny agents of espionage were:
a) everywhere,
b) all the time, and
c) way too fast for children's eyes.

He told me he "didn't care if Santa's elves could see and hear him or not."

R. and I had to take drastic action to re-assert control over the deteriorating situation.

Our Elf appeared, swinging from a chandelier in the Grape's room, while we visited relatives in Connecticut over Thanksgiving.

"Magic!" the Grape gasped, before declaring the thing scary.

He tearfully demanded it be banished from his room.

I excused myself to the bathroom for a brief moment of near hyper ventilation.

I know dozens, if not hundreds, of little kids. I've heard precisely zero reports of objections to the appearance of an Elf on the Shelf.

Our Elf held its ground, as did R. and I.

I paid fifteen bucks for that thing. Besides, R. and I had high hopes its presence would inspire angelic behavior.

There was no way we were going to allow the Grape to put the kibosh on the game. At least not at the get go.

Then another worry struck.

Is my five-year-old  gullible enough to believe the Elf (from which, in our haste to exit the house in the predawn hours of Thanksgiving, we'd neglected to remove the tags) has powers?

Yes and no.

The Grape absolutely believes in Santa.

As for his silly little stuffed helper: I can't figure out if the Grape believes, wants to believe because his friends do (or pretend to), or whether he wants to hedge his bets, on the time honored theory that Those Who Believe Will Get More.

Whatever the reason, he seems to have faith in a cheaply made-in-China toy that stirs lust in the eyes of Lucy the Cat and Lila the Dog alike.

Due to this sky-high level of four-legged interest, our Elf prefers a little altitude.

If R. and I leave him below six feet, he'll be shredded in seconds, his magic demolished in a drool soaked trail of red felt and white poly-fill.

He'd stand a better chance in the blender than between Lila's teeth.

The other issue with our newest holiday tradition is that R. and I stink at remembering to move the elf.

And whoever started this thing decreed, Thou shalt move thy Elf every night to keep alive its magic.

(For the uninitiated, the story goes that the Elf magically flies home to relay the behavior report and any new wishes to Santa every night. He's supposed to return to clock in for the morning shift before his charge wakes.)

So far we are ten days in.

On the fourth night, I woke in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. yelling, "We need to move the elf!"

R. and I have each nearly broken our necks at least once, whilst jamming downstairs ahead of the Grape, in order to relocate the thing before dawn.

Because of our negligence, the Elf scoots back and forth along the top of the kitchen cabinets a lot.

The Grape thinks it's because he can see the entire downstairs from up there. Whatever you say, kid.

The Grape wants to believe, and despite my past disdain for the Elf on the Shelf phenomenon, I've realized it's all good.

Childhood is short enough. If some of the magic of the holidays comes in the form of a flimsy, mass produced, smirking plaything, we'll take it.

As long as we can keep it out of the dog's jaws.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dinner with the Family: Barolo, Opera, Pasta and Arranged Marriage

Three nights ago, a routine Saturday family dinner party around my brother's table: Opera floating from the speakers, Barolo flowing freely, the children eating fat tubes of ziti off their fingers, and my dad holding forth on which individuals in our acquaintance pool "could benefit from being sent back to the Old Country for arranged marriage."

My sister-in-law, flailing baby on her hip, five heaping plates of food balanced on her right arm (in a move that could secure her employment in almost any restaurant in the world) agreed with Dad, and dared me with her eyes to jump in with some feminist objection.

None here. I was laughing along with everyone else at the sheer joy of discussing such an un-p.c. concept.

Let's be clear: Dad was not talking about fixing up teenagers before they got up to their own ideas regarding romance.

He meant consenting adults.

The kind who have extreme difficulty navigating the dating waters, the type who fall apart emotionally after every date that ends without a marriage proposal, the ones who tell their troubles to virtual strangers at the gym, sobbing and spluttering snot on the elliptical trainer, because they cannot hold in the grief.

The kind who want nothing more in this life than the security of married coupledom, but who seem unable to get there without a little help. The individuals who have spent decades weeping in therapy. Who need to get off the couch and just get on with it. The ones who have exhausted the potential fix ups in their own circles.

The kind who turn forty without ever having sex.

I thought such folks were the stuff of urban legend, but my relatives swiftly set me straight on that point.

What are these souls, the ones the Victorians called spinsters, supposed to do in the age of Internet dating? Because if these women are getting their hearts broken by Match dates, Tinder will shred whatever remains of their dignity to smithereens.

Would it be so bad to bring back the elderly village matchmakers? At least they wouldn't prey on women's hopes for ungodly sums of money, like some personal dating services.

The tradition certainly persisted in post WWII Italy, Greece and Armenia—the countries to which Dad suggested shipping these acquaintances for advice from elderly aunts and uncles.

The matchmaking tradition is also alive and well in some Jewish communities, as well as in India (where I know social class has a lot to do with whether the woman can, or is old enough, to consent).

Probably lots of other places too, but I can only speak to the hill towns of the Southern Mediterranean.

Dad started listing people we knew who had successful arranged marriages. "It's great for some people!" (Someone steered the topic elsewhere before Dad started listing all the "love"matches in our circle that ended in divorce.)

My mother kept pace as Dad warmed to his topic. She pointed out which examples are now dead.

I certainly recall, as late as the 1970s, talk of cousins of various degrees of removal flying home to Italy to find Holy Matrimony. That practice has all but vanished, as the potential old country wife pool have found careers and (rightly) balked at ironing and cooking all day.

I'd be lying if I said it didn't rankle me (a little) that my male second and third cousins set off in search of wives, like conquering knights, bearing new riches from the new world, while the women apparently require shipping and handling. But really, what's the harm, if all parties consent?

We ate our dinner before it became clear whether Dad would offer to broker any trans-Atlantic matchmaking.

The subject was dismissed as he held up a bite of food and asked, "Can this be Thanksgiving? I think these meatballs have turkey in them."

My sister-in-law confirmed the presence of the suspect fowl.

Dad shot a glance at my still splinted dominant hand, and added, sotto voce, "Since Mari can't cook."

Nobody in earshot objected. My brother poured more wine. We clinked glasses and said, "Happy Thanksgiving."

A few chairs down, R. sat and wondered how a thirteenth generation Connecticut Yankee managed to drop into this tableau, with its retro solutions to timeless problems. That and whether my dad was serious about the Thanksgiving remark.

It's never been our holiday.

Though I have come to own it since the Grape arrived.

While Dad despises turkey, a meat about which I'm ambivalent, he loves what I've done with the rest of the meal, if I may be so bold as to say so myself. But since I'm a cripple this fall, I'm not whipping up artichokes and oysters and squash with south Asian undertones and three kinds of stuffing and various pies.

This Thanksgiving I can bow my head, and be grateful that neither my sister nor I were mentioned as a candidates for arranged marriage in the Old Country.

Monday, November 17, 2014

All the Grape Wants for Christmas is a Little Sister

This is the second year in a row the Grape (age five) wants to ask Santa for a little sister.

It's always a little sister.

Even last year, I think he intuited that a younger brother could constitute some kind of direct and unwelcome competition.

Last year I told him Santa doesn't traffic in human children.

He seemed okay with that answer.

This year he's not buying it, and he's so insistent, he's making me cry.

"But why?" he wants to know.

I've explained more than once that Mamma's belly is broken. He accepted that response until last week. More than once, I've heard him explain his status as an only child to his friends in these terms.

But I knew he'd eventually do more math.

"But you had me," the Grape said Friday, on the way home from swimming lessons.

"I did, but I had lots of very big problems. The doctors—many doctors—and Mamma agreed that Mamma's belly shouldn't make any more babies."

The pregnancy and its aftermath were so bad, that I knew, from about month five, that I would never go through that again.

I never pictured myself as an only child kind of mother, but if a second meant another ordeal like the first, I was going to be grateful for my one healthy kid and call my family complete.

For years, I was content with my decision, not least because it was based on the advice of multiple doctors.

The Grape folded his arms over his chest. "Get another opinion. That's what you did with your hand."

He paused to think. "And that's when your hand started getting better. Look. You can even drive now."

I turned and gaped at him, smugly strapped in his car seat, clutching a juice box, brimming with confidence.

He yowled at me to watch the road.

He's not wrong. I've got a new hand doctor, who issued a smaller, tighter fitting brace, along with a shot of cortisone. My hand does feel a whole lot better.

A surgery exists today, a procedure that did not exist five or six years ago, that could fix my major medical issue with pregnancy—the one that triggered everything else that went wrong.

Unsurprisingly, one of the handful of doctors doing the procedure is here in Boston.

I'm not going to go into an analysis of my medical records—I know lots of writers do, in painstaking clinical detail. That's fine, but that level of sharing doesn't feel right for me.

My basic conundrum boils down to this: Even if I have the surgery, I am likely out of "time," which is a euphemism used by endocrinologists to mean "good eggs."

In this I'm no different from tens of thousands of women in their early forties.

I'm a terrible sleeper, but I don't lie awake at night wondering why I waited so long.

I waited so long because my mind was made up. No more hellish, dangerous pregnancies. Period.

What keeps me up is that suddenly the entire game changed.

For me, it probably changed too late.

Either way, the Grape isn't getting what he really wants from Santa.

Not this year.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Invisible Identity Crisis

Many of my mom friends and I found ourselves with kids in school full time for the first time this fall.

Trigger massive identity crises.

Compound with the old trope that a woman turns forty and becomes invisible.

It's true. I'm 41. When I walk around the hood with Julian and/or Lila the Dog, dozens of neighbors say hello, stop to chat.

If I leave the house solo, I might as well be wearing some king of magic invisibility cloak. I can slip past the very same neighbors, totally under the radar.

Once in a while someone will actually do a double take, and say, "Oh! It's you. I didn't recognize you without your entourage."

Female friends of similar age report near identical experiences.

Sometimes, if I'm in a hurry, it's not so bad. But usually it's demoralizing.

Some of my friends experienced a back-to-school season panic along the lines of: "Oh my God, I need to get back into the career I ignored for ten years." MUCH easier said than done.

Others wander around looking shell-shocked by the sudden block of unstructured time during daylight hours, and throw themselves into charities and cooking and re-decorating their homes.

A couple of women I know were smart enough to see the problem coming, and nimble enough to react. They had so called "luxury babies," infants they never originally planned on, but decided they wanted as their little ones grew past preschool age.

There's a plus side of full time kindergarten for me: more time to write, which I'm putting to good use.

And still. I can't help lying awake at night and thinking BIG midlife crisis type thoughts.

Should I have another baby (if that ship hasn't sailed)?

I know I should have contemplated a second kid sooner, but I've spent five years with some version of medically induced PTSD from the hellacious pregnancy and aftermath that produced the Grape.

And honestly, until right before he turned five, I was content. One happy, healthy child is more than many people have, and I am grateful every day. Maybe he was my one good egg. Maybe the fact that I almost died should give me pause (it does).

Or should I get new boobs? Nothing crazy. Tasteful C's.

Or is the fact that I'm contemplating the new baby versus new boobs question in the same breath an indication that what I really should do is have a glass of wine, book a nice beach holiday somewhere, and get a grip?

Do I get points for self awareness? I mean, at least I recognize a midlife crisis when I have one. That should count for something.

Oh, yeah. Happy Halloween, all!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Adventures in Busing

The wackiest thing about kindergarten so far? The school bus. Hands down.

The Grape LOVES riding the bus, so much so that his angst about starting a new school almost evaporated when he heard there would be a yellow school bus involved. This is unsurprising. I think the Grape's first full sentence might have been, "This is bus," in reference to this toy (for which I still have a back up or two stashed in the closet under the stairs):

I'd heard buzz over the summer that the bus takes a few weeks to shake out its glitches. But we were eager. So the morning of the first full day of school, we arrived at the bus stop and waited with eight other kids and moms. The appointed moment passed. No bus. Across town in Beacon Hill, the school day started. No bus.

The kids had a blast racing up and down the block and pelting acorns at passing cars on Columbus Avenue—evidently a time honored bus stop tradition, with which I am not going to interfere, because I'd like to be friends with these women.

One of the moms offered to drive the whole gang. She piled nine kids and all their lunches and backpacks into her SUV.

Me (crouching to his level and invoking calm but cheerful tone): This nice mommy (whom I very vaguely know from the dog park) is going to drive you all to school, and then this nice sixth grade girl is going to walk you to your classroom, okay?

Grape: Okay.

I'll say this about the Grape. He can be a major fusspot, but he's a great traveler, and I guess the school commute falls under the umbrella of travel.

So off he went in the clown car of kids.

I walked him to and from school for a few days. The following Monday, the Grape begged to try again. The bus showed up. The system worked.

As we moms smiled and waved at the bus bumping away, I started to think it's sort of strange to send a five-year-old off on the roads with some random public employee.

Especially one who freely admitted to getting lost on the day of the clown car episode.

"I think his name is Warner. Or maybe Werner," one of the moms said.

"Is that his first or last name?" someone asked.

Shrugs all around.

"I like that he wears a bow tie," someone else said.

And that was it. He may not know the city too well, but he brings it, fashion-wise, so we are going with it.

As the week wore on, the morning party grew to a dozen and then maybe fifteen kids. The Grape loves it.

Every afternoon, I take Lila the Dog and stake out the bus, which spews the kids out outside Charlie's. Or what used to be, and perhaps will be again, Charlie's. All went smoothly for weeks. One afternoon, the troop of kids marches off.

No Grape.

Heart misses beat.

Lila and I climb onto bus to find the Grape and his little School Bus Girlfriend trying to reassemble the Grape's belongings into his empty backpack.

He has unpacked his lunch box all over the seat, taken the lids off three pieces of tupperware,  lost his jacket under the seat, lost his drink bottle and library book entirely, and (apparently) attempted to hang up at least a dozen crumpled drawings for display. He is, for some unknowable reason, in the process of removing his shoes.

Also School Bus Girlfriend is making a huge mess with graham crackers, which I decide to ignore.

Meanwhile Lila (eighty pounds of dog), crazed with the excitement of actually boarding the bus, tries her best to stand on her head, jump on the seats, hoover up the graham cracker detritus, and generally turn herself inside out, while I hold her leash in the hand with the cast and try to reassemble the Grape's belongings with my left hand.

This is one of those procedures, like having blood drawn, that may only take a couple of minutes, but feels as if it lags on forever.

I finally manage to usher my kid and his dog and maybe eighty percent of his stuff off the bus.

I apologize profusely to the driver, who looks really put upon, but says nothing, because Werner/Warner is a man of few words. The Grape says he doesn't speak English, but I'm not sure that's correct.

I make a mental note to double Werner/Warner's holiday tip.

The next day, the schedule changes without notice. Lila and I see the flashing lights on Columbus from the southwest corridor, a full fifteen minutes early. We set a sprint record down Holyoke Street and greet a sobbing Grape.

His original School Bus Girlfriend, apparently enraged by a rival, has clocked him hard enough to leave a bruise. To the Grape's great credit, he didn't whack her back, but I suspect this is only because he's smart enough to know that she is way taller and must have twenty-plus pounds on him.

Sobbing Grape and I wait with a few kids spewed out with nobody to greet them, because, you know, nobody told us the schedule had changed. Lila and I were close because of dumb luck.

After handing off his friends, I call the school and freak out, which I immediately regret, because like every other mom, I live in terror of what they decide to write in the Permanent Record.

Head of School calls me back and assures me they are dealing with this matter and explaining to all the little savages (my word, not hers) that the school rules regarding treatment of classmates apply on the bus. As if it never occurred to anyone to mention that before.

Nobody complains about the lack of warning on the schedule change, because the kids get home fifteen minutes earlier, which is nice.

The next afternoon, the bus tracker app (yes, there's an app for that) shows the bus at one of the remote lots at Logan Airport.

Not encouraging.

Someone calls the school and informs us the bus broke down and the children have been packed onto a back up bus, which arrives promptly, but "smells like the men's room at Penn Station," according to one of the second grade boys.

In good news, the Grape and School Bus Girlfriend have made up. Or out. Evidently she tried (a second time) to French kiss him, and did succeed this time, in getting her tongue past his loose tooth.

Tuesday morning, our devoted Werner/Warner encounters a road closure somewhere between the South End and Beacon Hill. The bus makes a detour.  He ends up crossing the river and driving the children around Cambridge. By some accounts, they drive in circles behind MIT, but at least one girl claims they traveled as far afield as the Harvard Yard.

The children report that two of the older girls navigated Werner/Warner back to Beacon Hill, where they disembarked thirty to forty-five minutes late for school, depending on whose account you believe.

That night at dinner, I once again ask the Grape if he wants me to start walking him to and from school.

He looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "I love the bus, Mamma."

(Side note: If anyone knows the right amount to tip the bus driver at the holidays, send me a message. I'm thinking a nice bottle of scotch is not the way to go.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Parenting Advice from Strangers/Childless: Like Sex Advice from Celibate Clergy?

Years ago when I was pregnant, my mother tried to teach me to respond to complete strangers who offered unsolicited advice with, "I have an OB. I don't need any advice. Thank you."

She said that statement had a nicer ring than my go to, which at the time was, "Fuck yourself."

On one occasion I got creative, and told an unusually intrusive and obnoxious stranger in a pedicure chair what she should stick in her privates. Mom wasn't proud, but she laughed. That tale is here.

I foolishly thought the advice from random busy bodies would stop once we emerged from the pregnancy/new infant stage. Wrong.

A close friend of mine (incidentally one of the best moms I know, the kind who glows with happiness while four kids climb all over her, and makes running a big household look easy) lets her early and middle elementary aged children climb trees.

Not the outside of the Hancock Tower.


She's given up on counting the number of strangers, some nearly apoplectic, who come running up to alert her that her children are, indeed, up in trees, and who refuse to accept that as their mother, she's okay with this. She smiles sagely, thanks them for their concern, and watches her little monkeys climb higher.

Back in the dark ages, my mom let us run and play, not only in trees, but in the woods.

One day, when I was five and my brother was two, we took it upon ourselves to walk a path through the woods behind our house to visit neighbors who had just moved in. We rang the doorbell, introduced ourselves, and asked for a snack. My mom had no idea where we'd gone until we reported that Mrs. S was nice, and she gave us cookies and made us lemonade.

Her reaction: dial up Mrs. S on the old school rotary phone and apologize for the intrusion.

Back then, we passed for precocious. These days, my mom would probably end up on the nightly news. The village has gotten mighty paranoid.

I think every mother I know has started to walk away from a tantrum throwing toddler—the tried and true "I'm leaving now. Bye."—which in my experience has about a fifty to sixty per cent success rate in eliciting the desired behavior. Most of the time passersby smile knowingly.

Not always. The girlfriend who allows the tree climbing once walked fifty feet ahead of her screaming four-year-old on the sidewalk in the middle of the day and got a screaming lecture from a middle aged man that she was giving her child "permanent abandonment issues."

That time, she couldn't resist. She told him something along the lines of, "If you want to give me parenting advice, I'm going to give you some weight loss tips." (Apparently he was quite fat.)

A childless friend suggested the other day, that maybe the Grape needs more boundaries. (The Grape had picked up my phone without asking.) I snapped back that this friend has no business telling me how to raise my child.

I'm happy to discuss most subjects and most of my beliefs with friends, but I don't take mothering advice from the childless.

I view it on par with getting advice on improving one's sex life from a celibate priest.

That said, I get that it takes a village. I am grateful every day to be blessed with dozens of great women friends who have fallen down the Mommyland rabbit hole with me. I'm grateful for the moms at the playground, because we all keep an eye on each other's kids.

I'm grateful I have a mom I can call for advice when I'm out of ideas.

I'm grateful to live in a city where the emergency services show up in under two minutes when I call 911 because my baby is seizing.

But, for better or worse, I've started to view my day-to-day village as more of a sorority.

Nothing makes my blood boil like some previously unknown person holding forth on his or her "parenting philosophy" without invitation.

Pro tip to new-ish parent at park: Lecturing the moms who have known each other and each other's kids for years, about how you, a complete stranger, think we're disciplining our kids wrong does not get you and your kid invited to indoor play dates with wine and treats during the dead of winter.

I can see you believe you're being helpful. You're not. You're being a sanctimonious twit.

And by the way, while you're telling me how important it is never to raise one's voice, your kid is whacking someone in the face with a stick.

I don't have all the answers. Like my mom friends, I do the best I can. I know the Grape and I are lucky. Still, some days with a five-year-old are frustrating. Other moments are filled with such joy and wonder I want to freeze them forever.

Kind of like the above mentioned pedicure/colonoscopy incident.

And to prove I'm actually not all cranky this morning, I offer this moment from August:

I wish I could freeze that afternoon forever. Even though a stranger told me not to let him sit on the rocks (while I was four feet away).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Needs Improvement

"We need to talk," R. said to me upon his arrival home from work last night.

Never good words.

He swallowed hard, heaved a put upon sigh. "We need to figure out a way to get through the morning shuffle without behaving like we belong on the Jerry Springer show."

I nodded.

"I'm embarrassed to see the neighbors," he said. "Maybe we should go around and apologize."

I shook my head doubtfully. "An apology includes an implicit suggestion that it won't happen again."

I think at this point he walked upstairs to change.

"We could send everyone booze at the holidays," I yelled upstairs hopefully. "Or something from Harry and  David."

"If you can't get this under control, we are going to have to move to the suburbs."

Of course his complaint has merit.

First, I'd like to take this moment to apologize publicly to any mothers with whom I worked in an office during my single days.

I had no idea. I am so sorry for ever rolling my eyes or wondering what the big deal was with getting a five-year-old dressed, fed, teeth brushed, shoes on, and out the door at some appointed time. Or wondering why you showed up with wet hair or looking hung over, when you weren't going out and tying one on after work.

The Grape is just like his mom in three ways: he has what one might politely call a Latin temperament, he slumps in the afternoon and gets a maddening second wind at bedtime, and he likes to lounge in the mornings.

In his perfect world, he'd play with Legos for an hour, take another forty-five minutes to an hour to eat, and then get on with the day.

In my perfect world, I'd let him do that, and spend the time reading and sucking down coffee. In a perfect world, he'd go to bed before 7:30.

In the real world, I can put him in bed by then, but he won't fall asleep before nine anyway.

In the real world, we also need to leave for the school bus stop by 7:45 a.m.

(Aside: Why is school so damned early? Because the issue isn't going to school. The Grape LOVES school. The issue is the start time.)

Every morning this week, I dragged the Grape's reluctant, bawling, sobbing, begging, protesting form down from the top bunk by 7:15, my chest heavy with mom guilt because my kid wasn't sleeping enough. I couldn't bring myself to rouse him earlier, but a half hour pushes our luck in terms of leaving the house with any semblance of order or calm.

Every morning this week, I pleaded, begged, bribed, cajoled, threatened and ultimately yelled like an escapee from a lunatic asylum, about every step. Take off pajamas. Put on clothes. Eat. Eat. Eat. Please, for the love of God, eat one bite of Cheerios. Good. Now eat another. Please. Please. You will lose your Legos and/or play dates for the week if you don't eat another bite right now. I mean it. Right now. Brush teeth. Brush hair. Repeat threats in shriller voice. Find shoes. Put on shoes.

The Grape yells right back. I'll say this for him, the kid has a will of steel and he can give as good as he gets.

Thursday and Friday mornings were extra special.

We left the house at a jog at 7:48, the Grape wailing in such a way that might provoke a new neighbor to call the police, and screaming that I was hurting his arm by pulling him along, me in tears because I was "that mom" who sends her child to school on an empty stomach, and Lila the Dog straining on her leash, doing her canine best to pretend not to know us.

This needs improvement.

Monday, September 8, 2014


I've taken to telling my close girlfriends that I almost wish I could've frozen the Grape at age 4 1/2.

Because while he's a happy five-year-old, his Mamma is feeling the first stirrings of alarm.

Over the past few weeks, he's started his slow but steady march away from me.

Which I understand is healthy, for him at least.

He wakes up in the morning and no longer wants to clamber into bed next to me. Please note that this doesn't mean R. and I get to sleep more. The Grape always announces—loud and clear—that he's awake before proceeding to play quietly with Legos in his room. At which point, I'm up for the day.

Then there's this whole Kindergarten business. It's sweet and play based, but somehow still feels like "real" school. He still wants to hug and kiss me goodbye, but some of his classmates already shrug their moms away in embarrassment, and I know we're within ten years of the phase when the fact of having parents at all will be a source of tremendous mortification. (I.e. "Can you drop me off a block away from the movie theater?")

Here he is, getting on the school bus for the first time ever. Note that he's visibly worried that the bus might leave him behind while Mamma fumbles, thumb less, with the camera:

Yes, thumb less. I crashed a bike on a rocky downhill slope on Block Island. Among various injuries which consisted mainly of losing much of the skin on my left side extremities,  I tore the ligament in my thumb. Of course the right thumb. Of course I'm right handed.

The thumb is NOT an over-rated appendage. Among the things I can't do: wield a knife or a pen. Typing is awkward. Personal grooming a challenge.

I didn't fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem until the end of the trip, when we stopped taking every meal in restaurants or from sandwich counters.

I have a surgical consult scheduled this week. Good times.

But I digress.

The Grape announced, out of nowhere, on the eve of his fifth birthday, "Mamma, I'm growing up."

As if to underscore his point, a bunk bed arrived two weeks later.

While R. dismantled the crib-turned-toddler bed, the Grape informed me, "Now that I have a big boy bed, a baby sister will grow in your belly."

"That's not exactly how it works," I said. (Though I know where he got this idea: from a Berenstain Bears book, circa 1983, he found lying around my mom's house.)

"You never know," the Grape shrugged.

I felt pangs of guilt over my lonely only, because he often asks for a little sister. Always a sister. As if he's processed that a child of the same sex would constitute unwelcome competition. Of course he has no idea how much any infant would constitute a reduction in services as far as the Grape is concerned. This is a kid who still prefers that his mother help him put on his pants.

I don't want another one. I had a horrendous pregnancy, and wouldn't repeat the experience for anything, even if I weren't too old. Which I think I am.

Perhaps more importantly, I'm content.

I don't have that baby twinge for another newborn experienced by so many of my friends. A newborn takes a family back to start, and I love that with one, we're fairly nimble; we can once again undertake last minute trips, such as the aforementioned mini-break to Block Island (so worth it despite my unfortunate injury).

We can go somewhere for the day without paying the consequences of the blown off nap. With the Grape in school, I can work without paying for child care.

But there's no escaping the fact that he is indeed growing up. Which makes me wonder how much longer I should keep writing about him. I feel like ridiculous baby and toddler incidents (such as Bye, bye vacation, hello trip or Winter wonderland or Baking with a toddler )are fair game. For the most part, those posts are about me and my naive expectations of how things should run. The goofy challenges of parenting small children, such as taking forty-five minutes to exit the house, are in many ways universal.

Now that the Grape is making memories he is likely to remember, is it fair to use him as material?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I Got Tagged in the Writing Process Chain Letter (I Mean Blog Hop)

I don't write about writing often, since I don't find the nuts and bolts of my work day very interesting. Short version: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, eyes on clock so as not to be late for school pick up. But when the enchanting Laura Kenyon tagged me in this summer's writing process blog hop, I couldn't say no. 

Laura created the lighthearted and witty series Desperately Ever After. Her novels drop in on a group of well known fairy tale princesses—after their honeymoons are over—and shows the reader that it’s not all sunshine and roses after the first kiss. I’m delighted and honored that Laura thought of me for this interview.

What am I working on?

I’m working on a third novel, tentatively titled DO NO HARM.
DO NO HARM follows three women whose lives intersect, due to their connection to a massive pharmaceutical trial in Malawi. Stella is married to George, the celebrated humanitarian and infectious disease specialist who runs the trial. She puts her impressive career on hold to support her husband’s. In writing Stella, I was interested in exploring the question of whether a family can survive two hyper-ambitious personalities, or will one always need to yield? The second woman, Melody, is young doctor from a poor family in Boston. The more she accomplishes, the more she disconnects from her roots. Melody works for George, and her plot explores the line between aid and exploitation. The third voice is a teenager named Princess, a village girl George and Melody hire to work in their clinic. Princess dreams of education and escape, but her father, a powerful and conservative clergyman, has other plans for her. Princess’s story line looks at stereotypes and expectations, and the steep personal costs of unorthodox ambitions.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Hard question!
I struggle with the idea of genre, though I suppose all my work could be classified as contemporary women’s fiction. I write mostly about young to middle aged professional women who find themselves in wacky situations.

My first novel, THE HAZARDS OF HUNTING WHILE HEARTBROKEN, fits the chick lit category, albeit with an unusual twist at the end.

I call my second book, THE K STREET AFFAIR, as a political suspense novel, but it’s also an adventure caper, in that my heroine—like James Bond, for example, or some of the earlier John Grisham heroes— stays alive much longer under her circumstances than a similarly situated lawyer in real life would expect to survive. THE K STREET AFFAIR delves into political corruption and the idea that multinational corporations are eclipsing governments as the power brokers of the world.

But unlike most thriller protagonists, Lena has to contend with friendships and family relationships, which tilts the novel back into women’s fiction territory. I knew when I wrote THE K STREET AFFAIR that I was writing a really quirky novel. While I think that makes it a more interesting read than THE HAZARDS, I never shopped the manuscript to traditional publishers, because the novel didn’t fit any genre pigeon hole. Looking back, I admit that was a big mistake—especially every time a reader tells me she or he would love to see the movie.

Maybe the third time will be the charm, because DO NO HARM fits the contemporary women’s fiction, or book club, genre. It’s also a much more “literary” project than my first two books, which could both be classified as “commercial fiction.”

See? Hard question.

Why Do I Write What I Write?
I write about characters, places, situations, and questions that interest me. My books differ wildly from each other, because I think I suffer from some bizarre form of attention deficit disorder. I love to lose myself completely in the world of a group of characters for a year or two, and then move on to another world.

That said, both THE HAZARDS and K STREET ended on notes that left the door open for sequels, without demanding them. It might be fun to revisit those characters and story lines in the future.

How does my writing process work?
In my perfect rhythm, I’d work for three or four hours in the morning, then take a break for a few hours to eat, exercise, rest, go outdoors, etc., and then work another three or four hours from afternoon into early evening.

But that’s not how my life works, because I have a little kid whose routine conflicts directly with my natural working rhythm. For now, I write while he’s at school. I’m much more of a morning person than a night owl, so if I need to find extra hours, I am more likely to get up early than to try to create anything after his bedtime.

I like to work in large (at least an hour, preferably more) chunks of time. I work at my desk at a window in a small office in our apartment, an alcove gated off and accessible only to me and the more agile of our two cats. I don’t write with music playing, and I envy the legions of mom writers who can pen brilliant scenes in their minivans, or at Starbucks, or at Chuck E. Cheese.

I don’t write from an outline, but I create a chapter by chapter summary in a separate document as I work. I write a messy, over sized draft from start to finish, then go back and revise, then solicit opinions from beta readers, then revise again, before showing my editor the more polished draft.

Now it’s my turn to point you towards two other writers. I chose them because I know their processes differ wildly from mine. 

You may not know the name Richard Fifield yet, but look for his debut novel, The Flood Girls, soon.  If I had to bet, I'd say that one day in the not too distant future, he'll be every bit as much a household name as that Franzen fellow. 

Wendy Walker is one of those supermom writers who writes novels in her minivan. Her books, Four Wives and Social Lives, examine the fallout of the sexual divisions of society we create when one partner earns and the other stays home. Wendy encouraged me to keep writing years ago, when all I had was a messy first draft of a first novel and no knowledge of the publishing industry whatsoever.

Monday, July 14, 2014

When I Was a Kid, We Didn't Have AC. We Had Pizza Hut.

Sometimes I wonder if the Grape has it too easy.

Last week the temperature and humidity soared in Boston, and as the Grape and I trudged home from camp through the mid-afternoon soup, under a blazing sun, he said, "I can't wait to get home to the air conditioning."

I agreed. I love the summer, and the beach, but I don't have much use for temperatures above ninety. In my humble opinion, the only sensible place to be in such adverse conditions is under water, preferably with a snorkel.

"When your uncle and I were kids, we didn't have air conditioning," I told the Grape, as I tried to ignore the sweat streaming down my neck and legs.

The Grape gave me a look that said he wasn't buying such nonsense.

"It's true," I insisted, but he sensed a "walked uphill both ways, and fought off bears with my lunchbox" type tale coming on, and he lost interest.

I grew up  in Rhode Island, near the shore, which (in fairness) meant the ocean moderated the climate quite a bit. Even so, for a few long weeks every summer, the temperature would climb to the nineties and higher, the humidity would keep pace, and we would swelter.

We were lucky: My mother took us to the beach a lot. Occasionally we'd hit the grocery store on the way home and linger in the ice cream aisle.

But we'd inevitably pack it up by five o'clock, at which point our house felt like an oven set to broil and the yard buzzed thick with mosquitoes, who feasted on the Mediterranean blood coursing through my kid brother's veins and mine, while leaving our Finnish mother unmolested.

My brother and I normally picked the latter poison, and then tossed all night, sweating and itching. Or I did. My brother could sleep through anything.

On especially miserable evenings, my father would pile us into our massive blue Buick and the whole family would head for the blissful oasis of Pizza Hut.

Back then, Pizza Hut was a sit down restaurant, with red and white checkered table cloths and waitresses rendered preternaturally cheerful, probably because Pizza Hut had the coldest AC in all of North Kingstown, Rhode Island,  if not the entirety of Washington County.

And if memory serves, the parental allure was enhanced but the fact that they served pitchers of beer. Or it might have been Pepsi, or Tab. By then, my folks were too overheated to care.

We would milk that AC for all it was worth. We'd eat three courses at Pizza Hut before reluctantly paying the bill and stepping out into the steamy parking lot. One especially hot night, my dad ordered a small pizza for the four of us, and after we'd demolished that, he ordered another one, just to extend our sojourn in the cold.

I can't explain why my parents resisted the installment of air conditioning for so many years. It wasn't due to concern for the planet. Back in the 1970s and 80s, global warming hadn't crossed their radar.

I think their resistance was partially due to the expense, since AC isn't exactly easy on the electric bill.

But for my mother at least, I suspect the reluctance to chill us out was about more than the utility bills. She likely objected on the dual grounds of perceived pretentiousness and tackiness. An AC could be construed as pretentious and showy, since not very many people we knew had them, and because the hot season, while brutal, was also brief.

AC could also be considered tacky, because the window units would  look silly sticking out of the over sized glass windows of our 70s deck house (visual aid: it looks exactly like the Brady Bunch house from the outside).

Concerns about cost, ostentatiousness and tackiness were finally brushed aside during a lengthy heat wave in the summer of 1981. Or maybe it was 1982. Anyway, my parents caved, or wilted, rather, and my dad emerged from Benny's with a glorious, enormous window unit contraption.

Most people would assume my parents installed the house's sole air conditioner in the master bedroom.


There was a study off the master bedroom, with a window largely obscured from public view by an enormous evergreen tree. That's where the AC went, and we pushed and shoved to get closer to it as it roared to life and clattered like a broken luggage carousel. You could probably hear that old window unit next door, but we didn't care.

The whole family would huddle in the study during the hours after dinner and before bedtime. My brother and I never slept in the blissful cool, though my parents might have once or twice, behind our backs.  I have no proof, just a hunch, based on the circumstantial evidence that the study featured a pullout sofa.

As far as I know, the only family member to get a cool night's sleep on a regular basis back in those days was the dog. He was a medium-sized, fine-boned black mutt with expressive ears and a big white splotch on his chest, and he was no dummy. He grinned as the door shut behind him at night, closing him in the mysterious bubble of loud Arctic chill.

The year after the air conditioner arrived, my dad brought home the world's tiniest television for the study, which represented, in my view and my brother's, a massive, previously unimaginable upgrade.  We spent hours fiddling with its rabbit ears. Nintendo followed a few years later. We had two games: Mario and Duck Hunt.

At some stage, my mother installed a turbo charged ceiling fan in the master bedroom. If memory serves, its arrival loosely coincided with that of my little sister.

My parents didn't air condition the whole house for another decade, by which time I was off at college, where my roommate and I put towels over the air vents to prevent the temperature in our room from dropping below sixty in September. Some might say, be careful what you wish for, but I didn't mind.

So the Grape might have it easy, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. My parents lived their earliest years without plumbing in post-War Europe. I'm grateful they didn't impose the same on us, to make some silly point about the kids being too soft.

Monday, June 30, 2014


"Congratulations," an older acquaintance told me on the birth of the Grape. "Now you can worry until you die."

I smiled and nodded, and silently reassured myself that I wasn't going to turn into one of those hyper-vigilant, exceedingly annoying helicopter types.

After all, R. and I didn't chart feedings and diaper changes in those early days. The Grape slept in a separate room from the get-go. We never even purchased a baby monitor, since we had a smallish apartment, and while the Grape had digestive issues requiring surgery as an infant, his lungs were in top form from day one.

We're still pretty permissive parents. The Grape skis, and he skis fast. He rides his bike and scooter all over Boston, as do most of his little friends. We never call our babysitters "just to check on things."

So I was completely caught off guard when R. and his dad took the Grape camping in western Massachusetts this weekend, and instead of reveling in the silence and solitude, I spent most of Saturday fretting.

This makes no sense.

R. is an extremely capable dad. I've traveled solo on a few occasions, and I've never worried about how the boys were faring without me back in Boston.

But Saturday, while I took Lila the Dog for an extra long walk, worked half a day, watched a little World Cup, and had a lovely dinner with a girlfriend, I worried about silly things. Really silly things.

Were they checking for ticks? Would the Grape wake up at two in the morning in a panic? Were there poisonous snakes in the woods of New England? And if so, were was the nearest anti-venom? Why on earth did they need to choose a campsite with zero cell service? Did R. know the location of the nearest ER?

And while I squandered my precious alone time on idiotic concerns, I fully understood I was being ridiculous. R. didn't lose sleep when I took the Grape to Finland for two weeks without him. Even though Finland definitely has plenty of poisonous snakes, and we spend days on end in the woods while there. On the plus side, you'd be hard pressed to find a spot with less than five bars of cell service.

As I lay awake Saturday night, I decided that my worries about the first ever Dad and Lad to the Second Power Outing were about a false, completely imagined sense of loss of control.

I was being as silly as those people who fear flying, because they don't like the idea of someone else piloting the aircraft, even though they understand that they're much likelier to die in their own cars.

Bad things happen everywhere. Like all major metropolitan areas, Boston has its share of horrible vehicle versus pedestrian crashes. So I watch my kid on his bike or scooter like a hawk, and I teach him to look both ways, even on one-way streets, and never, ever to play chicken with speeding cabs. I teach him to watch out for broken glass, to give unknown dogs space, and never to touch junk he finds in parks, because you never know when the trash in question could be a used needle. (I've found two in the park across the street during our almost four-year tenure in this apartment.)

It doesn't take a genius to grasp that his little life is more imperiled while commuting to school than while roasting weenies with his father and grandfather in attendance. And yet, I didn't sleep well Saturday night.

While I catch myself holding my breath every time we negotiate a busy intersection, I don't fret about the school schlep when it's not happening, because it's such a familiar part of our routine. And because my physical presence gives me that entirely false sense of control.

The Grape had a great time on his camping adventure. He slept all night in the tent and roasted marshmallows and explored the woods. He's already asking when they can go again.

Maybe I won't fret as much next time. Maybe.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Can Four-Year-Olds Understand Forever?

This exchange happened the other day:

Me: Look! Your friend, W., has a new dog. Isn't she cute?

Grape (visibly alarmed): What happened to Maggie? W.'s old dog?

Me: She died.

Grape (big frown, face crumples): Oh, dear. Why?

Me: Well, Maggie was old and very sick.

Grape (looking as if he might burst into tears): Is that going to happen to Lila?

Me: Hopefully not for a very long time.

Grape: But she will die some day? (with greater urgency) Is Lila going to DIE, Mamma?

Me: Yes, but hopefully not for a very, very long time. Lila should have many good years ahead.

Grape (Pensive silence, sad face, followed by *long* pause, and sudden brightening): What should we name our next dog?

Me: [Face palm.]

I don't remember the moment I realized death was permanent; all I know is I definitely understood by age six. That was when my grandfather and our family dog died within three days of each other. I was certain of three things:

1. Neither grandfather nor dog was coming back.

2. I was very sad about both events, but far more viscerally upset about the dog.

3. I knew it was deeply shameful to be more distraught over the dog, so I did my six-year-old best to hide this fact.

I don't think the Grape gets the death thing yet, which is largely my fault. In my desire to let him be little, he's been sheltered from some of the more unpleasant facts of life and mortality. It's not like we live on a farm where these circle of life mysteries get cleared up easily.

We've also been lucky. (Yes, I'm knocking hard on my wooden desk as I type this). The Grape hasn't lost any immediate family members or close friends.

We've haven't had to cross the "death bridge," so I haven't gone there.

Some of his pals have lost grandparents, and on such occasions,  he's asked me why grown-ups are sad. When I explain that so-and-so's Mommy is sad because her mother died, he usually accepts that answer without follow up. If anything, he verifies that the deceased was very, very old.

So I'm pretty sure some connection between advanced age and not living anymore exists in his head.

We've happened upon the odd dead wild animal. I can't figure out if the Grape understands that these unfortunate critters aren't just down for a big sleep.  I've also watched him, many times, turn away from the glass-eyed snappers and mackerels packed in ice at the fish counter at the grocery store. His brain doesn't seem to want to go "there," and it seems cruel to force it.

Anyway, he's not invested in a dead squirrel, bird, or mackerel the way he's invested in Lila the Dog, Siren the Cat,  Lucy the (Perpetual) Kitten, and various human family members.

On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that it's high time to level with the Grape.

Lately, I've heard kids on the playground shouting, sometimes gleefully, sometimes angrily, "I'm going to kill you!"

The Grape knows that in our household, such talk is completely unacceptable, and that such utterances on his part rain down severe consequences.

I am confident he knows it's not a nice thing to say.

I suspect the Grape thinks "to kill" means to cause some nonspecific kind of harm, and to assert dominance. When pressed, he says it means "to hurt."

This inability to process the permanence of death is a major reason I'm adamantly opposed to any kind of toy weapons. At four, they know not what they do. Young children's games that reinforce the insane idea that violence can exist without consequence do nothing to create good world citizens.

I doubt the Grape or his pals can wrap their four-year-old minds around the permanence of death, or of killing. When adult minds wrestle with the concept of infinity—if it's human nature to seek boundaries and borders—can a four-year-old understand forever?

The Grape is fast approaching five. If, based on experience, six-year-olds understand what it means to die, I suspect some kind of awakening to that fact will start to happen over the next twelve months.

So maybe this is one area where it's best to let him learn organically, to leave well enough alone, to avoid traumatizing the little guy by explaining unpleasant truths unless and until absolutely necessary.

And I'm starting to understand why some parents quietly replace dead goldfish or parakeets or hamsters. I'm queasy about the idea. I don't have a horse in that particular race, since we don't have any small, cage dwelling pets, but I kind of get the practice now. These parents are desperate to avoid going "there." I still find the replacement practice weird, but now I might just go out and buy some fish.

Because odds are good the fish won't live for years and years. Maybe the Grape should lose a few goldfish before wrangling with the greater bereavements of life.

(Aside: If we do get fish, we will do our best to keep them going as long as possible. Please do not write me hate mail, accusing me of plotting fish murders.)

Or maybe we don't need the fish. Maybe he can just be innocent of death a few months (a year? two?) more, until his brain catches up to the concept.

I want to let him be little as long as possible.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Weepy Goodbye to Preschool

One thing I've noticed about life with a little kid: The days often feel long, but the weeks and months rocket by.

Tomorrow the Grape will graduate from preschool—that wonderful place around which our weekdays have revolved since September, 2011.

Here he is, checking out the dramatic play corner of the two-year-old room on his very first day:

This photo was snapped before he realized I was about to leave him there for almost three hours. He was a newly minted two-year-old; he started school four weeks after his second birthday.

I never meant to send the Grape to school so young. I'd filled out a form to apply to the three-year-old room for the following school year. Admittedly, I'd done so very early, on the advice of friends with older kids.

Then our beloved sitter, M., told us she was moving out of Boston in August.

Serendipitously, the preschool director called to let us know she had a two-year-old spot, for three days a week, starting three weeks hence.

We'd interviewed a few replacement sitters, but hadn't found that perfect fit, and I was growing increasingly anxious and weepy as the date of M.'s departure drew near.

Did we want the spot for the Grape? asked the preschool director.

"Isn't he too young?" I asked.

"That's your decision," she said. "But yes, he would be the youngest in the school."

I asked the departing sitter what she thought. After all, she was the baby whisperer, the one who could get the Grape to eat and sleep when nobody else could stop him from howling. And she had a master's in social work and a long career working with children. We valued her opinion.

"He'd love it. He loves being with other children," she said without missing a beat.

She was so sure that she made me feel sure. I called the preschool. "We'll take it."

Best parenting decision we ever made. Hands down.

The little baby playing in the kitchen is a full fledged kid now, one who knows an era is ending and who feels angst and nerves about the unknown world of kindergarten—a hazy place in his head, albeit one reached by bus.

One who marches confidently around the city with his class, who builds long term group projects and creates elaborate imaginary play scenarios with his friends. He's made charts of the triumphs and defeats of the Red Sox. He's learned about the inner workings of the human body and about the ocean. He's built entire cities with blocks.

He's explored different kinds of art, he's been to parks I never knew existed, and he's gone from a little boy who ran from the stage shrieking in terror during his first holiday show, to one who proudly belts out songs with his classmates.

He's learned to be a good classroom citizen.

He can do basic arithmetic and write his terribly long name. He recognizes several written words.

All in a purely play-based, child-centered environment, where the teachers never threw a single ditto or flashcard at the kids.

And he's made real friends, many of whom will go their separate ways tomorrow afternoon. (One boy from the class will attend the same kindergarten as the Grape.)

I'm grateful he won't know to mourn those losses, that he won't truly process the permanence of graduation. That he'll have the summer to adjust to a necessary change, and to meet his old friends at the playground.

But his Mamma will probably cry when we walk out of that school for the last time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Who's your favorite writer?"

I get asked, "Who's your favorite writer?" all the time.

I'm sure anyone who writes get this inquiry on a regular basis. Maybe I should be prepared to answer without missing a beat.

But the answer, which never fails to disappoint the person asking, is, "It's complicated." Because it is. The question, most recently posed by a college student, is overly broad.

I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic. I read mostly fiction, of both the literary and commercial varieties. I'm one of those people who always has a book going. This question shouldn't blindside me, leave me stammering like an unread nitwit.

But it does, and I finally figured out why.

I don't have a favorite author, and I'm unwilling to offer a quick, obvious  answer, like Jane Austen, or Edith Wharton, though I love them both. (Because you're shocked, right? Someone who pens women's fiction likes Austen. How predictable.)

Offering up Austen and changing the subject seems akin to a college boy professing love for Kerouac in the face of the favorite writer question, or perhaps offering up Hunter S. Thompson.

Too easy, and too dismissive of the inquiry, which was no doubt made in a good faith effort to make interesting conversation.

The only thing worse would be saying, "Shakespeare," not because I don't love the bard, but because I'm pretty sure that when people ask, they mean which contemporary authors.

They may want to be turned onto someone new. They don't need a crotchety reminder to brush up on Shakespeare, anymore than they need a smug reminder that some of us have read War and Peace for fun, and enjoyed every minute.

I'm determined not to mess up this question again. So I've made a list, which is by no means exhaustive, and which is offered in alphabetical order, because it's so eclectic. You've been warned.

Margaret Atwood: I read everything she writes and her work both thrills and terrifies me, and never fails to make me think.

Jenna Blum: Because her novel Those Who Save Us was one of my favorite books, in spite of its very tough subject matter, several years before she and I became friends. Plus, she's a master of novel structure. Writers should read her for that reason alone.

Isak Dinesen: I read her early, in middle school. She made me want to see Africa and indeed the world.

Sebastian Faulks: His novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray got me reading for pure pleasure again after a slump in law school, for which I am deeply grateful.

Helen Fielding: She created a genre and she writes quirky, accessible novels. I love quirky. And how can you not love a genre creator?

Richard Fifield: I know. "Who?" Fret not. You'll have heard of him soon. I had the great privilege of reading his debut novel, The Flood Girls, while he was writing and polishing the manuscript. He tackles heartbreaking topics with  elegant, efficient prose and has a innate gift for description that cannot be taught.

Emily Giffin: I snatched her debut novel, Something Borrowed, off my sister-in-law's beach chair a decade ago and it changed my life before I even started reading this masterpiece of chick lit. While shaking sand out of the dust jacket, I had an epiphany. She was a lawyer, just like me. And she had written a novel, which was something I'd always wanted to do. I went home and did it.

Allegra Goodman: I suspect, if Ms. Goodman were a man, she'd be celebrated as the writer of the modern Great American Novel. She writes about relationships in exhaustively researched contemporary settings. She does so in a manner that takes the reader from one character's mind to the next, and she makes it all look effortless, a talent demonstrated by Tolstoy. Who happens to be another of my favorites. Sorry. I had to sneak that in there.

John Grisham: Nobody does pacing like him. Period. I love his books on long plane rides. I also dig his politics.

Barbara Kingsolver: She wrote The Poisonwood Bible, one of my all time favorite novels, an achingly beautiful page turner.

Ann Hood: Because she writes elegant, compelling prose that haunts me even after the story is told. The Obituary Writer was one of my favorite books this year, an honest yet alluring rendering of grief.

Alexander McCall Smith: I cannot conceive of anything more charming than the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and I'm not even a series junkie.

Toni Morrison: I debated adding her here for a while. She writes astoundingly beautiful prose, and deserves every accolade she's garnered. I have read most of her novels. But, as for "favorites," her addition to the list was a tough call, because her subject matter is so grueling and her writing is so honest and raw. (But I still think everyone should read her, so I snuck back twenty-four hours later and added her to my list. Because it's my blog, and I can.)

Arundathi Roy: Because The God of Small Things is another of my all time favorite novels, and because I admire her willingness to speak her mind on issues of importance to her, regardless of the consequences to her career.

J. Courtney Sullivan: She expertly weaves the past and present, through characters with astonishing, yet somehow believable, connections to each other. The Engagements was another of my favorite books this year. Plus she always makes me wish I'd gone to Smith.

That's my list as it stands today. I reserve the right to make additions. Did I miss any of your favorites?

Monday, May 19, 2014

What I Learned on our Disney Trip

We just returned from five nights in Disney World. My parents wanted to take the Grape, and my dad talked about the trip in abstract, sometime-in-the-future form so frequently that I had to tell him he had a choice: 1. Stop talking about it/whipping the Grape into a frenzy, or 2. Book the trip.

He elected to book the trip.

The Grape, quite literally, had the time of his life.

R. and I learned a few things that I thought I'd share, in case any of you are planning to visit the Magical Mouse Empire.

1. Pull the kids out of school and go during a "low crowd volume week."


There are several blogs devoted to charting crowd flow at Disney parks. We used this one. Some of his tips veer towards intense (his view is you must do every attraction), but I thought his tips on the crowd calendar looked spot on. We picked a "lowest volume" week, and cross referenced to avoid hurricane season and other undesirable weather trends.

I'm so glad we did. Our longest wait was twenty minutes, for Spaceship Earth, and we walked onto most rides. Even so, the parks felt busy, and the entrances were crowded. So much so that I don't ever want to see a high volume week.

The other huge plus of a low volume week is that your kid can go on favorite rides many times. If your child is anything like the Grape, i.e. pensive and suspicious, s/he won't get a lot out of the first whirl on any ride. It's great to re-visit favorites without queuing.

Potential pitfall: We went on Small World eight times. Eight is a lot.

2. Work the Fast Pass system. Figure out your top three priorities for each day and reserve fast passes for them.

A friend passed along another helpful nugget regarding Fast Passes: If you have a Fast Pass for an attraction with a short (i.e. ten minute) wait, switch the Fast Pass to another attraction. One important caveat: When using the app, there's no guarantee that when you change the fast pass attraction, you'll get your replacement selection in your original time slot. So consider your timing for the day before making changes.

3. Figure out your fourth through sixth priorities, for which you won't have Fast Passes, and do those as soon as the park opens. 

Example: We had a Fast Pass for Winnie the Pooh from 9 to 10 a.m. our last morning, but couldn't get Fast Pass for Peter Pan, which was one of the Grape's favorite things. We went straight to Peter Pan as soon as the Magic Kingdom opened at 9, then rode Small World and the carousel, then used our Fast Pass for Winnie around 9:35.

4. Measure your kid before you book the trip. The cutoff for *most* rides is forty inches. A few are even taller.

5. You need dinner reservations, and reservations for any character dining you wish to do. They're not kidding about this. Unless you really enjoy waiting a long time with a hungry, tired child. You also have to accept at the outset that the food in Disney is expensive for what it is.

This was tough for me to grasp, since I don't know weeks in advance, what and when I wish to eat. But you have to suck it up and reserve tables. If anyone knows a reliable workaround, I'd love to hear about it.

6. They get you on admission for days one through five, but if you want to stay longer, days six through ten are a huge bargain.

7. Register the Disney tickets for each member of your party prior to arrival, so you can book the Fast Passes in advance through the app.

8. If your child is princess obsessed, you MUST Fast Pass the Princess meet and greet. Even during our low crowd volume week, the stand by wait time to meet Princess Elsa veered close to FOUR HOURS(?!?!). No wait time in any park came close.

9. The only place in the Magic Kingdom that serves adult beverages is the Be Our Guest Restaurant. Shockingly, they are booked up months in advance.

The other parks serve wine and beer and even cocktails at various locations. You can even carry a roadie around the Epcot.

10. Disney excels at moving people, and their parks and transit system are remarkably clean when you consider the traffic. I doubt there's a cleaner amusement park anywhere in the world.

11. If you're accustomed to walking, be prepared to see lots of folks who aren't, because it will annoy you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

We saw four, five, six, seven, and eight year olds, and possibly even older kids, in strollers(?!?!)

Yet we wonder why so many American kids are obese. A lot of the strollers are also piloted by adults who clearly don't drive strollers on a daily basis, and are therefore a menace on the sidewalks, monorails, buses, etc.

We also saw a stunning number of able bodied adults on motorized scooters.  The Magic Kingdom is only 107 acres. Even the much larger Epcot park is still measured in acres instead of miles (it's 300 acres).

I am delighted that Disney is handicap accessible, because it makes the experience available to those with physical challenges.

But the number of people blatantly abusing the system bothered me.

12. For most adults, Disney World is more trip than vacation. It's all about the kids. You will probably come home feeling tired and over stimulated, but your kid will have a ball, and beg to visit again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Program Revisited

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," model Kate Moss famously quipped.

Except wine.

And therein lies the rub.

Or the belly rub, if you will.

Last spring, I wrote about embarking on my first ever real "program."

I'd been a very lucky woman until about age thirty-eight: I was naturally inclined to enjoy exercise and I could eat desserts and drink alcohol, without a lot of concern for my midsection.

Then a double whammy hit.

My metabolism hit The Wall, an obstacle familiar to the vast majority of women slightly beyond peak birthing age, and I began taking medication for a health issue, and that medication made me retain water some of the time, so my weight would yo-yo dramatically week to week.

I decided something had to be done.

The answer, for me, is NEVER new pants.

Instead of hitting the mall, I rebooted my workouts, which had become admittedly lame after I was forced to quit running. I added a couple of days a week of real strength training. By which I mean I lifted weights that were actually kind of challenging to hoist repeatedly. And I started watching calories. Not obsessively. But I had to become aware, and realize that, for the most part, the program was the new normal.

Last spring, I dropped between twelve and sixteen pounds in seven weeks (depending on which end of the medication induced weight yo-yo I count from).

I've kept all but four off. No mysteries here. I've kept up the mindful eating and strength training.

It's the wine.

I've resolved to drop those four pounds, plus one more, because I like easy numbers. Which means I'm back on The Program.

So many of you emailed me and asked what I ate during the program that I thought I'd share here.
Basically, I dialed back (but didn't totally eliminate) dairy and wheat, dialed back alcohol to two nights a week, and nixed sweets for two months (the only dessert cheat was when I was a guest in someone else's home).

And I stopped scarfing the Grape's leftovers. This was hard for me. I view wasting food as a major sin.

Here's the food side of The Program:

Breakfast: Most mornings: A couple of scrambled eggs, a whole fresh fruit and/or a cup of fresh berries, coffee with milk. Sometimes yogurt in place of the eggs. Sometimes oatmeal with an apple or banana.

Lunch: Most days: Salad with either tuna or beans for protein, with olive oil and vinegar. No croutons. And obviously no salad bar items soaked in mayo.

Dinner: Most evenings: Some kind of grilled or baked fish or shellfish, LOTS of sauteed green veggies or a salad, rice or a baked potato with a modest dab of butter. Wine with dinner only twice a week. No desserts.

About twice a week, I cooked pasta—and I don't do brown pasta—because it's something we all like to eat as a family. I'd eat a normal portion, and I don't eat pasta without parmesan or pecorino romano. Some cultural things are too sacred to sacrifice on the swimsuit altar.

I'm not a snacker, but if my stomach complained to the point that I found myself tempted to chew on my arm, I'd eat a piece of fruit, some carrots, with or without hummus, some nuts or pickles.

In rare good news, it turns out that pickles are an appetite suppressant. Hurrah!

I'm following the same mindful eating rules again, and experimenting with adding a third day per week of strength intervals, in hopes of jolting my metabolism.

The first week or two are the toughest. I get cranky when I'm hungry. I'm over that hump now and feeling happier.

I will offer one final caveat. For me, it's virtually impossible to diet if I'm not sleeping enough. Sleep deprivation screws with your metabolism. I had serious sleep issues during pregnancy and the first year of the Grape's life. It would have been an awful time to go on a restrictive program.

What I learned: don't set yourself up to fail. Eating healthy foods and exercising can help you sleep better for sure. But never go to bed starving if you're already struggling with insomnia.

I'll report back next month.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

9 Things I Learned from the Private Kindergarten Application Process

Our private school application journey had a steep learning curve. I've received quite a few emails, asking me to "out" the schools to which we applied in this space, which I've decided not to do. However, I'm happy to share the nuggets I've picked up in recent months. I hope they're helpful to parents facing the private school shuffle in the fall.

1. Many schools are incredibly flexible with their age cutoffs, if you want to hold your child back a grade. This is called red shirting and it's en vogue, if not required, in many private schools. I'm not sure why the trend favors giant kindergartners, but I think three factors come into play. Older kids are usually easier to manage from a practical standpoint. Kindergarten looks more like first grade now than it did thirty years ago. Some (but not all) private schools are actually concerned about kids' future sporting prowess, and they figure than giant kindergartners make giant lacrosse players in grade nine.

2. Most private schools offer no flexibility whatsoever if you want to nudge your kid into a class ahead of the age cutoff. I.e. If the rule is age five by September 1, fall birthdays shouldn't bother. (Note: I don't know if this holds true for kids who already have siblings in the school.)

3. All the schools in Massachusetts seem to cut off their class at age five by September 1. I suspect this has something to do with securing accreditation as a kindergarten, because that is the public school cutoff date in our state. But in many cases, this isn't the real cutoff. We found private schools that unabashedly cut their entering kindergarten class as early as five by April 15 and as late as September 1, with most cutting the class at age five by May or June.

4. If your child, like the Grape, has a birthday within a couple of months of the cutoff date, ASK about the birthday demographics of the incoming class. The admissions directors will be able to tell you a list of birthdays, based on the siblings of current students they have in place. They can also break the list down by sex.  It's not a full picture, but especially at schools with more than one classroom per grade, it's pretty accurate.

5. Summer girls get more leeway than summer boys, because more girls than boys do well at sitting still at age four. The schools don't seem to care if you think your girl is hyper or your boy is super mellow. They go with the birthday demographics.

6. If the school cuts its incoming class in the spring, your summer boy will not be admitted, even if you believe he is God's gift to academia and you can convince the admissions committee of that fact. Because the bottom line is, the schools want your youngster to have a peer. I.e. If they admit one very newly minted five-year-old into a class comprised of six- and almost-six-year-olds, they need to admit at least two more newly minted five-year-olds so your kid would have a true peers. Not happening.

7. Money matters. I'd be delighted to be proven wrong here, but I have yet to hear of a case of a child of a serious celebrity being dinged, or even wait listed. Private schools, for all their impressive progress in terms of racial, ethnic, and to a lesser degree, socio-economic diversity, still keep an eagle eye on their endowments. This doesn't mean that scholarship kids don't make the cut. It just means the odds go down, if there are celebrity tots in the applicant pool.

I've also heard anecdotes about schools asking parents to explain how School fits into their philanthropic priorities, and about admissions officers being caught red handed making notes on trappings of wealth such as jewelry during the parent interview.

8. Ask how many seats are available for boys and girls, because it's not the number of seats in the kindergarten. The vast majority of schools try for a fifty-fifty split by sex, and the number of current students' siblings in the entering class will affect the number of open seats for each sex.

9. No school is perfect. A school that's a great fit for one family might not mesh with yours. Educational philosophies and preferences differ. My tastes run to coed, play based programs, schools that encourage kids' natural curiosity, that offer recesses and exposure to the arts and a foreign language. I'm not big on little kids sitting at desks, excessive formality, or super long or super short school days. But that's just me.

That's my round up. Please let me know if you think I missed anything critical.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bust Averted

The Grape is going to Kindergarten in September after all.

And we're staying put in the city for at least one more year.

I wrote last month that the Grape wouldn't be attending either of the two private schools to which we applied, but it turns out the tea leaves changed this month.

Quick recap: one school cut its Kindergarten class with spring birthdays, rendering the Grape ineligible based on demographics. Simply put, we applied a year too early for their profile.

The other private school offered us a pre-K spot after we applied for Kindergarten and stated, both in person and in writing, that we were only interested in Kindergarten. We knew this school's age demographic skewed younger than the first school's, i.e. There was no red shirt birthday cutoff in play.

I wrote last month that the disjointed process left a really bad taste in our mouths.

I suppose we could have tossed the letter regarding pre-K in the trash and left it at that, but R. and I were so puzzled about this outcome, we decided to inquire by phone.

Long story (involving much phone tag) made short: R. called and made it clear we weren't going to send the Grape to pre-K. Then he asked the admissions director, as politely as humanly possible, WTF?

After a moderate degree of ado, a Kindergarten spot materialized. The admissions director noted in an email to us she was impressed with our advocacy for our son. I take this to mean she thinks we are very pushy and demanding people (high compliments, in my opinion).

So why, if the process ticked us off, did we take the Kindergarten spot?

Three reasons.

First and foremost, we really like the school. It features a play based, child centered, Reggio inspired Kindergarten program, and we think that environment will be a great fit for our pensive but social kid. The school shares many of our values, with an emphasis social justice, organic learning, community mindedness, and development of problem solving skills. We know quite a few families at the school who have been delighted with their experiences. The Grape will get to start a foreign language in September. We were impressed by the teachers we met during our visit.

Simply put, there was no reasonable argument in favor of turning down a Kindergarten seat we wanted in the first place, because the process didn't gallop along as smoothly we hoped. Especially since the BPS lottery didn't pan out in our favor.

Second, we may still move to the suburbs eventually, but we didn't want to do so without serious deliberation.

Yes, it would be great to have a yard, a mudroom, a playroom, and some space to entertain. But we still love many things about the city. If and when we move, I want to take our time and get a much better grasp on neighborhood options. Call it moving proactively, rather than reactively.

Third, private school is a product families buy one year at a time.

I think a lot of people lose sight of this fact, because all the schools try to package themselves as long haul commitments. They all say things like, "You join our community." You never hear, "You buy a year of tuition."

But the truth is, you reassess every year. If the system is working for your kid, fantastic. If not, you make a change.

I find that there's always the plan, and then there's what happens. We might stay in the city for the duration of the Grape's elementary school years, or we might still flee to the land of mudrooms, picket fences, and highly desirable public schools.

In any case, we're focused on the here and now, and we're delighted the Grape will be joining his friends in Kindergarten this fall.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

10 Tips on What to Do If You Are a Victim of Debit Card Fraud

I'm veering slightly off topic today, in the hopes that the things I've learned about dealing with banks during the past several days can help other households. And I guess it's not that far off topic, because it's Tax Day, and household funds are on everyone's mind.

Debit card fraud is a major issue for consumer banks and their customers. My comments concern the large consumer banks; small, local banks seem to do better at watching their customers' money, but it's conceivable they face the same fraud issues. Bottom line: you should always watch your accounts like a hawk.

Why? Why can't I just look at the monthly statement?

Great question. Because when someone hacks or duplicates a debit card, the stolen money leaves the customer's account.  Contrast credit cards: when a fraudulent charge posts, the consumer has no liability for the charge during the investigation.

By federal law, consumer banks have TEN BUSINESS DAYS to re-credit fraudulently withdrawn funds, from the date you report the funds stolen. Anyone else think this law is ridiculous? And while we're on the subject of ridiculousness: Since when, in a free market economy, did the minimum level of customer service mandated by federal law become acceptable to consumers?

Anyone else feel they might be inconvenienced by an inability to access funds for ten business days?

Or flat out financially screwed?

And do you think the bank will make you whole, if you miss a mortgage payment, or an insurance payment, or a tax payment?

Will they repair your credit rating when you pay late, because they failed to watch your money? What do you think?

The banks' 800 numbers will never tell you this, but if your debit card bears the VISA or MC logo, the bank must re-credit the stolen funds within FIVE BUSINESS DAYS, due to a contract between the card issuers and the banks. Still an unacceptable inconvenience, but it's a modest improvement on ten.

Someone evidently duplicated my debit card and used it at a bunch of liquor stores and gas stations in NJ and Pennsylvania last week. I got the money refunded in one business day, because here's what I figured out:

1. Don't bother calling the 800 number or using the online service center. GO STRAIGHT TO SOCIAL MEDIA. If you tweet your displeasure, you will get a call from the chairman's office. If that doesn't work within an hour, call the 800 number. They are trained to dissuade you  from "escalating" a complaint. They will say it's a routine matter, not a big deal.

Excuse me? It's a big deal, if we're talking about my money. You want your complaint escalated to the highest level possible and you want that done today. Insist.

2.  Once you get a call from someone higher up (often called the Office of the Chairman or similar), have a list of what you want done to address the issue(s) at your fingertips. This includes a list of the fraudulent transactions.

This person will be impeccably polite and trained to make friends with you.

The best way to get what you need and want is to be very firm and professional. The conversation need not be heated, but you are not friends. They are trained to make you feel like you and the bank are co-victims. That's not a correct assessment: you trusted the bank to watch for and report fraud and they failed, yet they still have the power to make it right. You don't.

Insist on the relief you want, on the timeline you want. Remember: you are the customer.

3. Ask what they are doing to prevent fraud, and ask why the frauds weren't flagged, and why you weren't alerted by phone, text, or at least email. I promise the answer will be unsatisfactory, but go through the exercise anyway.

4. When the answer is unsatisfactory, wonder aloud whether the bank's failure to to ANYTHING to detect and stop fraud means the bank is in fact defrauding the FDIC and the IRS. 

You're on a recorded line, so turn that fact to your advantage.

Ask why, if you are in Boston, for example, and the card was used to buy hundreds of dollars of booze in New Jersey, why you did not receive so much as a text, email or phone call?

Here's my theory, and it's just a theory until the great day comes that the Congress subpoenas the records and chairmen of the FDIC insured consumer banks:

The consumer banks look at debit card fraud as a routine cost of doing business.

Why? Because they bank on merchants and customers eating most of the cost of theft and fraud through fees and other charges. They write their relatively minor share of the fraud losses off against their profits on their tax returns, thereby cheating the American taxpayers.

And, in the unlikely event the banks fail, fraud losses undoubtedly will factor into the failure; the failure that the taxpayers will have to insure.

5. Once you have the attention of the rep on that recorded line, insist that they credit the funds IMMEDIATELY, while the investigation is pending. 

Don't believe for a second this is impossible. Your big bank has way more money than you do. If they refuse, or even say they need to get back to you, say you are filing a complaint with the Federal Reserve. Just the threat makes them move faster.

6. Insist on confirmation that the compromised card is cancelled, but continue to watch your accounts. Banks stink at following up, and they aren't on the hook for fraud you fail to catch within 60 days.

7. Insist a new debit card be sent overnight to you at NO COST to you. Otherwise they'll try to charge you for the FedEx.

8. Insist that the rep refund ALL MAINTENANCE FEES on the account for the month(s) during which they failed to catch the fraud.  They can do this without even putting you on hold, and it's more than fair: part of the reason you pay fees is so the bank watches your money. When they fail to make any effort to watch your money, they owe you at least the service fees for the month(s) when they were asleep at the switch.

9. Get the name of the person helping you and his/her direct line. I know you have already wasted a day on this, but you will need to follow up.

10. Write your U.S. Senator and Congressional Representative and demand legislation that puts the burden of debit card fraud on the banks issuing the debit cards, not on the consumer. Because really, why should consumer banks cheat the taxpayers and continue to enjoy sweetheart treatment from the government? Congressional and/or judicial action seems like the only way to make the consumer banks get serious about protecting their customers' accounts.

Think about it: the anti-fraud "chip" technology used in Europe for years greatly cuts down on debit fraud. The American banks have made a business decision that they'd rather write off the debit fraud losses they can't pass to merchants and customers, than pay to implement state of the art consumer protection technology for the benefit of their customers.