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.