Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer Camp Wrap Up

Earlier this summer, we shipped the Grape to camp for two weeks.

He would've stayed longer, but the camp books up in the dead of winter, and R. and I weren't going to pony up for more than the minimum stay, before we determined whether our cab-hailing, museum-frequenting kid did well in the wild.

Or the water. (The thing that first caught my eye about this place was the fact that the kids swam twice a day, every day.)

We wanted something out in the country, where he could swim and tramp through the woods—an old timey, totally unplugged camp experience, the kind of place where "indoors" means a covered porch. 

He was five, we couldn't very well send him to the woods of Northern New England armed with some stationery, a can of bug spray, and two dozen pairs of underpants with his name scrawled  inside the waistbands.

This meant taking a bus some twenty miles west of the city.

"It's a reverse commute," R. and I assured ourselves. "There are three adults on the bus. He'll be fine."

Making the bus meant leaving the house with a lot of gear, as well as a camp nurse approved lunch, no later than 7:10 a.m.

In a few short days after school ended, the Grape had become accustomed to sleeping until almost nine. I had to drag his sleeping body out of the bunk every morning.

It was a lot like trying to haul a fifty pound suitcase from an overhead bin, while standing on a ladder.

We would run, frantic, through the park and up the street and past the laundromat, exactly like the folks in the Mo Willems picture book Knuffle Bunny, only with a greater degree of urgency, because if we missed the bus, I'd be in for hours of driving, and part of the point of this exercise was to secure a block of time to finish my third novel.
Note the utter lack of urgency on the part of the Grape on his way to the bus.

I'm proud to report we never missed that bus.

But all this did happen:

He almost capsized under the weight of his backpack the first day.

When the dad who caught him mid-fall suggested I hang a counterweight on his front, I decided to nix the sweatshirt and sweatpants.

The first two afternoons, he came home with both his pants and underwear on backwards.

One of the moms at the bus stop told me that was very good. She explained that her kid wore his wet bathing suit all day, because he didn't want to change clothes. This particular child was signed up for eight weeks.  I saw a lot of Desitin in their future.

On the third day, the Grape wore his swimsuit home, having lost three full changes of clothes, who knows where.

My repeated inquiries as to the location of his clothes and other swimsuit were met with an indignant, "It's not a cubby. It's a crate!" As if that was somehow the crux of the matter.

I think that was the same day he earned an award in tennis, and I didn't believe him, because his school P.E. teachers claim he possesses zero hand-eye coordination.

Moments after he convinced me of its probable existence, the Grape discovered the tennis award had gone missing on the afternoon bus.

He nearly lost his mind.

I had to call the camp and have the person in charge assure the Grape that he would be reunited with his ten-cent pin major achievement award.

I know, I know. They need to learn to deal with disappointment, but maybe not at the same moment I'm about to receive foreign house guests.

While I had the director of the little kids' section on the phone, I asked if the camp might launch a search for the Grape's three sets of lost clothes.

"No problem," she said.

They sent him home on day four bearing two huge plastic bags, full of the belongings of other children in his group (an assortment including a wet towel, a thermos, and a pair of brand new shoes).

We continued in this fashion for the duration of the camp session. Exasperating? Mildly.

Ultimately the little hassles didn't matter, because the Grape had the time of his life.

The camp issued a shirt to be worn the first day. The Grape wanted to wear it every morning, because he was so thrilled and proud to be going to camp.  Who wouldn't be? The place was a slice of kid heaven. He learned to swim (HURRAY!).  He made new friends. He went boating. He climbed a rock wall. He even caught a fish.
The Grape with his "lucky" rod and a perch (?). I suspect the campers have been catching and releasing the same fish for years.

So I washed the shirt every night, and promised to sign him up for next year, even though the 7:15 to 4:30 absence every day had started to feel really long (to me—he was fine).

He'll be a year older. By then I'm hopeful he'll remember that the flap belongs on the front of the underwear.

And if he doesn't, who cares?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Whys of Summer Camp

Mama guilt drove me to do it.

As a kid, I spent my early summers outdoors.

We were either  on the beach in Rhode Island, or in the woods behind our house, or at my mother's family's cabin, near Lake Saimaa in Finland.

It was rustic. There was (and still is) an outhouse involved, and a well, where we kept things like milk cold in a bucket at the end of a long rope, because nobody wanted to mess with a gas refrigerator.

We foraged for berries and mushrooms, and out grandfather set traps for lake fish, because that's what good Finns do in the summer.

The road to the cabin featured boulders and compact car sized pits. If we had too many people piled into the car, a 1970 Skoda, it would get stuck.

So my brother and I (and any visiting children past toddling age) were kicked out to navigate the last mile or two on foot.

"Beware of moose! And poisonous vipers!"my grandmother would admonish, as we clomped away in our rubber boots, stamped "Made by Nokia in Finland" on the insides.

My brother and I ran semi-wild, our feet always dirty, and our bodies always smelling faintly of pond water or salt or Noxzema, or some combination thereof. Many days, our swimsuits never dried.

The Grape has none of this.

Sure, being a city kid has its perks. He can hail a cab, and he handily navigates the neighborhood at rush hour on his bike. He's been to the symphony and various museums. He frequents playgrounds that would've blown my mind when I was his age, when I was easily impressed by a single swing hung from a tree limb. He can explain how to get from Point A to Point B on the subway, even if it involves changing lines. He sees and hears a diverse range of people every day.

But one day last fall, after a soaking rainstorm, the trees on our street hung low.

The Grape said, "It's just like the woods."

Except it wasn't. These trees were in evenly spaced planting squares, and our feet were on the pavement.

I hit the Internet and signed my city boy up for the campiest day camp I could find within a semi-reasonable driving radius of our home.

I wanted the Grape to swim, and go boating, and tramp through the woods, and hang out outdoors all day, as far from a screen or a classroom as practicable.

We went to an open house. It poured that day. The Grape wailed in the backseat that I was the meanest mother ever, and he could not believe I was doing this to him. "How can you just send me away with strangers in the middle of nowhere? What kind of mother are you?"

He carried on as if I was about to abandon him forever in some Deliverance town.

R. and I reassured him that we signed him up for the minimum time, two weeks. He could do anything for two weeks. Nine days, really.

The Grape turned his gaze towards the heavens, or at least at the roof of the car, as if wondering how he received such clueless twits for parents.

We pulled into the camp. The Grape saw the beach and the boats and the rock wall and the tidy rows of tents.

His eyes boggled.

"I get to go here?"

R. and I exhaled. The place felt magical, like a throwback to an unplugged time, even in the rain.
A slice of kid heaven in Sudbury, Massachusetts, even in a downpour.

We took the now bouncing, smiling Grape on the tour.

A little girl in our group asked the guide, a college age counselor, "Why is that pile of rocks over there?"

The counselor looked confused for a moment.

"It's nature," he said.

"Not art?" the little girl pressed.

"Nature," our guide said, more firmly.

R. and I exchanged a glance: we were definitely doing the right thing.

Or were we? It was twenty miles away. There was a bus to contend with, and we didn't have the most stellar experience with school buses last fall. There were so many belongings to organize, and the Grape's backpack nearly outweighed him.

I didn't sleep a wink the night before his first day. What if he got bullied on the bus? Was he too little? Were we crazy to ship him so far away? What if he lost his lunch? What if he didn't make any friends?

And in the darkest hours of the morning: GAH! What if he drowns?

I did what any reasonable Mama in my position would do: I flipped on the lamp and woke up R.


"He won't drown. These people know what they're doing."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. They would be out of business if they drowned people's kids. Now go the f--- to sleep. You need to get up and make the nut-free lunch in two hours."

Next post: How it worked out...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

I Got Pantsed at the Grocery Store

The Kindergarten teachers, like the preschool teachers before them, warned me this would happen. As the the school year draws to a close, the kids go "a bit berserk."

Kids who normally cycle through the full range of human emotions every ten minutes accelerate that rate. The Grape can manage a full laugh-cry-meltdown-whine-bounce-off-walls-cackle-like-lunatic cycle that takes 90 seconds from start to finish.  Lately this phenomenon continues on endless loop.

The roiling emotions, I understand, may be coupled with whackadoo, out of character behaviors.

Yesterday, the Grape pantsed me in the grocery store checkout line. (I guess that should teach me to appear in public in yoga pants.)

Pantsing was so far beyond the Grape's normal repertoire of stunts that it took me a second to process what was happening, another second to re-cover my posterior.

The cashier politely averted her eyes.

Naturally, there was a college boy (also laughing) behind us in line. I could see the thought bubble over his head: Which aisle for condoms?

Unfortunately I couldn't stop laughing whole time I attempted to explain how wholly unacceptable I found the Grape's behavior. You try saying, "We do not ever pull Mamma's pants down in the grocery store," with a straight face.

If the child is to change schools come September, the berserk level goes on steroids. Last spring, Kindergarten loomed like some inexplicable, ephemeral concept, like Heaven, for example. The Grape acted like a victim of demonic possession for months.

At least this year, the Grape can trot down the corridor and peek at the brave new world of First Grade with his own little eyes.

Fair enough. Many adults don't handle looming change and uncertainty well. Of course five-year-olds have difficulty processing their bittersweet emotions once the calendar flips to June.

The Grape told me he was both happy and sad about summer vacation. Happy, because we get to go the beach with his cousins, and he can go camping with Grandpa. Sad, because he wouldn't see his kindergarten pals every day. He added that he'd miss the kindergarten teachers a lot, which tells me they've done a terrific job.

I guess it's now up to me to do a better job wearing real pants with belts. Or longer tops.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Most Dreaded Subject Line for Parents of Young Children

No email subject line strikes fear in the hearts of parents of young children quite like "Head Lice."

These emails invariably arrive late in the day—maddening in timing, ambiguity, and precision all at once. Also it's impossible to read one without feeling itchy.

"Dear Kindergarten Parents,

We have a confirmed case of Head Lice in the classroom. Please be aware our school has a no nit policy!

Have a great evening!


"Best," as Samantha quipped years ago on Sex and the City, is the worst. In this case, it means your evening plans are shot to hell. It means 837 loads of laundry and hours of combing.

The first time one of the Head Lice greetings hit my inbox, I remained calm and called the school.

And scratched my itchy head while I sat on hold.

The Grape, they assured me, had checked out nit free.

Which of course meant nothing, seeing as the whole problem with Head Lice is they spread. They've got strong little legs, and they lay eggs like it's their job. Which I suppose it is.

To make matters worse, I'd just spent the day on a field trip with all 32 kindergarten students.

I'd encouraged them to cram in closer for a group photo.

I'd ridden the bus for forty-five minutes each way with these kids.

I'd laughed as they literally piled all over each other on the playground.

It was five p.m. when I saw the email. I'd arranged to meet an old friend for an early dinner. I was still dusty, sweaty, and utterly unfit to be seen in a nice restaurant. I'd banked on having thirty minutes to clean myself up.

Now I had to de-louse the Grape.

I did what any reasonable adult would do.

I panicked.

I procured the special shampoo and the evil metallic nit comb, forced the Grape to shed all his clothes on the patio, and refused to admit him to the house until I'd treated his head. (This all seemed reasonable at the time. In my defense, it was an extraordinarily warm spring day.)

I asked Siri to find me a photo of a nit. I held the phone next to the Grape's head, barked at the poor little guy to hold still.

There was something small and white. Dandruff? It really, truly looked like dandruff, but I wasn't about to take chances.

I know about Head Lice. I got them at school (twice) at age five.

The first time, I got shampooed with awful insecticidal liquid. It came in a brown prescription bottle, smelled like industrial solvent, and was dispensed to my frazzled mother by a frowning and judgmental pharmacist.

I remember it burning.

I had long hair. It took four hours to comb.

The second time I came home with Head Lice, I got the horrible shampoo again.

I also got a tragic home haircut and spent the rest of the school year looking like the Dutch Boy from the paint can—a drastic esthetic my mother inexplicably saw fit to commemorate with a Woolworth's portrait, which still, equally inexplicably, hangs in a place of honor in my late grandmother's living room.

I was not getting a boy haircut, but I had twenty minutes remaining to get turned around and nit free.

I hauled a bucket of warm water and the modern, pleasant-smelling special shampoo outside.

The Grape went along with it all until he realized I was proposing al fresco hair washing. He started to whine. He appealed to logic. "My teacher didn't see any on me!"

Lila the Dog and Lucy the Cat wandered onto the deck to see what the fuss was about.

"Siri!" I demanded, as a fresh terror gripped my soul. "Can dogs and cats get head lice?"

It took her a minute, but she was certain they could not.

Thank God.

The poor, naked Grape protested, cried that he wanted to come indoors. He was so very tired and he didn't like all this combing, and he was so, so, so hungry, too. And the towel I had wrapped around him was soaking wet.


The Grape burst into tears. Loud tears. It was not a proud parenting moment for me.

My neighbor, an innocent and childless bystander, who happened to be walking his dog in the alley below, heard the whole exchange. He gave me a strange look. He didn't appear concerned enough to call social services, but I got the distinct impression he walked away thinking we might deserve a reality show.

I decided I had to cancel on my friend at the very moment a text arrived from her: "You won't believe the day I had. So happy to be going out. See you soon!"

I couldn't bail. I hate when people bail.

I texted back: "Head Lice. Need Wine. 15 minutes late. So sorry!"

She responded immediately, offering to cancel. Nonsense, I told her.

R. arrived home.  For twenty minutes, I combed what I now believe were pieces of the Grape's scalp through his wet hair while R. examined mine, strand by strand. We probably looked like an ape family picking at each other. Every stitch of clothing the Grape and I had been wearing went into the washer. R. and I congratulated ourselves on dodging a bullet. I told R. I probably should go apologize to the neighbor, explain it was a louse emergency. He advised leaving well enough alone.

I made it to my dinner, half an hour late, with wet but (hopefully) nit-free hair.

My friend declined to hug me.

We got the Head Lice email again this week. 

By now, the parent community has enough louse-based war stories that everyone has a suggestion.

"Drench your hair with olive oil and sleep with a shower cap over it," is the best one I've heard. "It suffocates the buggers."

That's hot, right?

It's not like there aren't a million blogs bemoaning the fact that adult time becomes non-existent in households with little kids.

Now we are supposed to sexy ourselves up with shower caps?

I'm going out right now to buy them for all of us. Just in case.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Red Shirting Question Resurfaces

Here were are again, like our own family's version of Groundhog Day.

The end of the academic year looms and we are faced once again with the breaking news that the Grape is the youngest kid in his class.

His teachers probe our opinions carefully, as if fishing for a splinter with a needle.

We sit around the tiny table in the tiny chairs. They lean across the thoughtfully curated spread of art projects and barely whisper: "Do we want to 'loop' him?"

The Grape is scheduled to enter first grade at age six years and three weeks.

There are no other Boys of Summer in his kindergarten class. In the kindergarten class across the hall, there is one. Perhaps two, but I think only one.

The kindergarten girls have more widely distributed birthday demographics than their male classmates, but they're all older than the Grape, too.

This data point interests me, because it's the girls with whom the Grape has forged deep friendships. One of his besties will actually celebrate her seventh birthday in June. So what we have is a young boy who plays best with older girls.

The Grape likes the "girl" games: elaborate, often drawn out, imaginative play scenarios and role plays. They build little worlds in their corner of the classroom or recess yard. He's got laser like focus and a marathon attention span for this type of play.

Whether at home or at school, he still lives very much inside his imagination—something I'm in terror of stifling with too much didactic learning.

I cringe when the handwriting sheets come home, and in fairness, our school doesn't do a lot of this.

Apparently I'm not alone.

The New York Times ran a brilliant piece yesterday by David Kohn, singing my song: Send children to school young. Very young. But don't make them do much in the academic sphere except learn through play and natural exploration until age seven or eight. Because it's going to backfire. Not for everyone, but for too many of them.

I firmly believe that if you crush the love of learning early, you will almost never be able to rekindle it, especially with the limited resources available to most public school teachers in this country.

I'm afraid that the national conversation about universal preschool (VERY GOOD) will lead to younger and younger children bent over desks, resigned to dull tasks, as if they're some sort of midget medieval scribes (VERY BAD), instead of socializing, playing, imagining, exploring, reading, running in circles like banshees outdoors, and resting.

The article didn't open the attention deficit can of worms, and I'm not a pediatrician.

But to me, it's common sense that if a significant number* of otherwise healthy kids need to be drugged to get through an elementary school day, the problem isn't with the kids, it's with the structure of the school day.

I, for better or worse, can't decide national education policy. I can only decide the Grape's plans for next year.

The Grape hangs in there with the older kids on the more academic side of kindergarten. He loves "making books" and he likes math. He likes exploring new subjects like nature and the solar system with his classmates. He loves music and art and going to the library. I'm certainly not against academics; I just believe they shouldn't make up the bulk of a young child's day.

The class hosted a sweet event this winter, where parents came in and everyone made a book with his/her child. The Grape came up with "The Dog Who Wanted to Ski." I admit I helped draw the dog's crossed skis, but the rest is all Grape:

"They went to the green circle but the dog's skis got tangled."

He got the thing done and turned in on time. From that I infer his attention span for a high-focus task is the creation of four pages plus a cover. Seems reasonable to me.

Most importantly, the Grape wants to go to first grade.

That's where his friends are headed, and we've explained that there's more writing and reading and less free play (though thankfully first graders go outdoors for recess twice a day).

He claims to understand, but I'm skeptical.

But not as skeptical as I am of keeping him back.

In my book, the only thing worse than more didactic learning is a re-run of the past year's didactic learning.

We aren't "looping" (or red-shirting) him this year.

I'm sure we'll have to field this question next year. I have no idea how we'll feel about the jump from first to second, but my thinking is that we keep him with his class as long as he's happy and keeping up.

If and when he asks to be kept back, or he cannot handle the material, we'll "loop" him then.

What I'd really love to see is all the little ones freed from their desks for most of the school day. 

Unfortunately, the Let Them Play More trend has about as much chance of catching on as our dog has of learning to ski.

* The actual number of kids on drugs for "attention disorders" is hard to nail down. Various sources use various methods and yield various stats. But all sources agree the number of cases is trending steeply up.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Mouse Sees and Hears All

There's something creepy afoot in Disney World, and it's got nothing to do with classic cartoon villains.

It's common knowledge that Disney employees an army of logisticians, consumer analysts and transportation engineers, to track its customers and facilitate movement and control of crowds. We expect security cameras everywhere.

But Disney's facial recognition software veers too far from Disney Magic and too close to Big Brother. And the eavesdropping is off the hook.

The U.S. military, the most powerful military on the planet, wants to buy Disney's spy technology. So basically the Mouse has better capabilities than the CIA. Or at least the Pentagon.

The Grape, luckiest kid on the planet, recently returned from his second trip to the Mouse Empire.
Innocent magic rodent? Or an agent the envy of spy agencies worldwide?

Thanks largely to David Shute's AMAZING crowd calendar, the Grape had a ball, and we adults had the most stress-free trip possible (which to Disney novices, still feels crowded, crushed, and costly).

I noticed two things on this trip that I didn't fully process on my first.

They are always watching—at least on their newer attractions.

On our last morning, we went straight to the very popular Mine Train ride, stood in minimal line, and rode the newest coaster.  At no point did anyone in my party scan their band. We didn't have fast passes for the ride.

Yet, two days after we returned home, Disney sent us a video of us on the Mine Train. It came in the same email as several stills from Buzz Lightyear and Expedition Everest. Note that this also means they presumably sent pictures of us, including the Grape, to the people who happened to ride with us.

Possibly creepier: They are listening. (?!?!?)

It was the post fireworks rush from the park at the Magic Kingdom. The Grape was cooked. We stood in line on the dock to take the Disney water shuttle back to the hotel.

The gentleman behind us in line (a party of two adults and two kids) struck up a conversation with R.

"It's all for the kids," we agreed when he expressed that sentiment. "And it's all VERY expensive for what you get, especially in the restaurants and hotels."

Our new friend agreed effusively. "Five star prices for three star food!"

"But we know that coming in. Again, it's all for the kids. They love it."

We pointed at fake Tahiti (Disney's Polynesian Resort) across the man-made lagoon.

"If we didn't have kids, we could go to real Tahiti!"

"Or real Paris! Or real Venice!"

And so forth. The boat began loading. The Disney employee allowed R., the Grape and me to board then abruptly cut off the line. He physically blocked our new friend from taking another step.

Plenty of room on the boat. Maybe a dozen seats left. Literally two hundred people on the dock.


Survey says: Doubtful.

We all accept that the Magic Band, which enables park, room and Fast Pass ride admission, contains a computer tracker. Fine.

Call me old fashioned, but I see a world of difference between tracking guests' choices in attractions and shopping, and actually listening to their conversations and snapping candids without consent.

I'm sure Disney doesn't care what I think—as evidenced by the behavior of their front desk staff and their maddening restaurant reservation rigidity.

My kid loves the place, and he's in the prime window (I'd say the prime window opens at age four and runs into the early teens—a perception Disney works hard to dispute).

Despite this newish ick factor, and the highly disturbing tolerance by Disney of rampant abuse of its wonderful handicapped accommodations, we'll likely return at some point.

Ultimately it's academic; I don't do or say anything in public I don't mind repeated.

So yes, Disney, I'd rather go to real Paris than your Paris, and I don't care who knows that.

All I'm saying is it would've been nice to be forewarned of all this surveillance that makes the Pentagon swoon.

Even George Orwell's characters knew that Big Brother's telescreens could see and hear them at all times.

And maybe they could tweak the Mouse Club song:


Friday, March 27, 2015

Put a Woman on It

The campaign to boot late President Andrew Jackson from his position of honor on the twenty-dollar-bill is rightly starting to gain traction.

It's high time we banished that brute's likeness, and replaced it with a portrait of an American woman.

Predictably, many names have been floated. Without ANY searching, I've seen petitions for Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Eleanor Roosevelt cross my social media feeds.

I think the honor should go to  Emma Lazarus.

Yeah, the writer/child of immigrants casts her vote for Team Poet/Child of Immigrants.

Shocking, I know. But hear me out.

First, I admit I could be very easily swayed to the Sojourner Truth camp.

Okay, I could be swayed to most any of these camps, and I have to say, I find it depressing that we're only considering maybe, possibly including one woman in the American billfold.

Like that's somehow fair.

I suppose it's only money; if I had to choose I'd rather see no women on the bills, and five or six women on the Supreme Court, and 52 in the Senate, and so forth.

But I digress.

I like Emma Lazarus because she penned the most recognizable articulation of this country's moral mission, immortalized on that most iconic of our monuments, the Statue of Liberty:

...Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

A child of immigrants, reminding us once again at this highly divided time, that the United States is, was, and ever will be a nation of immigrants, an exceptional case among the countries of the world.

What's more perfect than that?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What I Learned from Binge Watching Scandal

I had walking pneumonia last month, which in my case was basically a First World Problem, albeit one that came with much hacking and wheezing. I felt winded if I stood up. I had the plague for a good three weeks.

I'm most thankful that I didn't have to drag my tail to a "normal" job. I remember corporate America well. Sick employees face a Catch-22: Your boss and colleagues hate you for coming in sick, and they hate you for taking sick days. I am also deeply grateful for my mother and sister-in-law, who took the Grape off my hands for the lion's share of the February school break.

I convalesced by discovering and binge-watching Scandal.

Some friends say the writing has gone over a cliff (wink) in terms of credulity, but I love a good caper, particularly this one, with a smart woman at the center of multiple dark conspiracies.

Well done, Shonda Rhimes.

Luckily we writers can chalk up excessive TV viewing as a learning exercise.

The main downside to watching so much Scandal: I kept wondering whether my suspense thriller, The K Street Affair, should have been farther fetched.

While writing early drafts, I decided my scheme (wherein corporate titans from around the globe conspire with top elected officials and those charged to protect them to perpetrate major crimes, because they are Greedy and Insatiably Power Hungry) would need to be really complicated.

Watching all that Scandal taught me that fast paced writing will make the audience come along for the ride—and they don't need to see every nut and bolt of a conspiracy to believe it. They will accept that their fellow humans will do anything, when driven by lust (whether for power or flesh or cash, or any combination thereof).

At some point, around my seventeenth draft of K Street, I decided that it was too remarkable for my smart but civilian heroine to remain alive through the terrifying events that befell her. I toned down some big events in the book. Mistake?  Hard to say. It's that credulity thing again: it's awfully fun, as a writer, to dance as close to the edge as possible.

In sunnier news, I'm confident, after watching all this Scandal, that putting two hot, imperfect men in my novel was absolutely the right call.

Everyone loves a love triangle, and I suspect many fans love Ms. Rhimes for bucking the big screen trend: Olivia Pope gets lots of woman-focused sex.

Aside: While watching this love triangle, I have also contemplated what it means for my psyche that I hope Olivia chooses Jake over Fitz. Or at least chooses herself.

The K Street Affair is a quirky book: a woman centered political and spy caper that doesn't fit neatly into any of the spaces on the bookshelf. It was fun to write, at times scary to research, and ultimately the novel I wanted to publish—a misfit, nerdy sort of book. Kind of like its author.

Because K Street was a quirky novel, I never shopped it* to major publishers, a huge mistake I realized too late.

Precise moment of my epiphany regarding how badly I screwed up:  Thanksgiving, 2012, when Barnes & Noble selected The K Street Affair for their General Fiction Book Club for January 2013, and I had no distribution network to get books into their 700 stores, or any mechanism to take back unsold copies. That was an enormous missed opportunity for me as a writer.

I'm thrilled by the success of Scandal.  It means I'm not the only woman writer who's tired of seeing the guys have all the fun, and that audiences agree.

*Full disclosure: A few agents saw, years earlier, a very rough draft of the book that would become The K Street Affair (2013). After several of them advised me to shelve it for a while, and write something more "mainstream," I listened and wrote The Hazards (2011).

Monday, February 23, 2015

Snow of Doom

Back when I lived in DC, I used to marvel that a dusting of powder would create gridlock worthy of a National Guard call up.

"In New England, they know how to deal," fellow Northeastern expats and I would smugly assure each other, as we watched one of the capital city's two tiny truck plows push a path down M Street. "Snowmaggedon, or whatever this one is called, would not happen in Boston."

I'm ready to cry uncle.

Because in Boston, there is only The Snow.

The Snow has rendered our already dour winter population cranky. Local commutes rival work days in length, and our parking wars make shameful international news. (Though I admit some of the photos in the space saver article score high marks for creativity.)

Note to neighbors: It is not okay to vandalize your neighbors' cars.

Special aside to the old-timers who argue that they "own" public parking spaces: please look in the mirror next time you feel like spouting about entitled students.

Boston resembles Arundel without the magic.

I freely admit to loving the first storm, but things have gotten out of hand, even for snow lovers like the Grape and me.

Our family has snow induced First World Problems:

The Grape is stir crazy. He hasn't had a full week of school since December. When he does have a full week of school, he will have forgotten what that feels like, and he will burn up on re-entry like a cheap Soviet satellite. It will be like September, but with the added locomotive challenges posed by The Snow.

R. got dirty slush all over his new jacket. Why? Because he went outside to help a cop who'd gotten his cruiser stuck in 18 inches of slush in the alley, and who thought the answer was to floor the gas.

While his Dad pushed the car with another neighbor, the Grape advised the cop "to be more gentle with the car." It was moderately embarrassing, because the five-year-old was right.

Our roof sprung a leak, and the dripping sound as it hits the bucket near my bed is making me twitchy. The water stain on ceiling spreads like mold in a petri dish, and presently resembles an obscene gesture.

My book club has been cancelled seven times.

Instacart is more like Day After Tomorrow Cart.

I have walking pneumonia, and feel winded whenever I stand up, let alone stand at the school bus stake out for forty-five minutes.

I realize these issues are nothing, compared to the stories of misery reported by low wage employees trying to navigate The Snow. Or the ones about little kids stuck on school buses for three hours, because The Snow causes unprecedented, twice a day, absolute standstill gridlock.

Why does The Snow do this? This is Boston. We should be able to deal.

The Snow has our number this time, partly because the city government made the stunning decision to allow street parking on major thoroughfares while the snow piles remain two stories high.

Picture this: Cars parked in the travel lanes, because the street parking lanes are full of snow. Which means you have one lane of travel in each direction on major roadways. Totally avoidable. Maddening, really. 

Our crosswalks remain terrifying, and every time I have to make a turn in the car, it's a blind move of faith, because nobody can see over the aforementioned two-story snow piles. People are walking in the streets, dodging sliding cars, because the sidewalks still aren't cleared. Here's a picture of our school bus stop:
Intersection of Columbus and Holyoke, Boston's South End, 2/11/15 (no change as of today)
Last time I was at the grocery store, the bleary-eyed clerk told me it took him three and a half hours to get into work from Brockton (a town south of the city). This is two and a half hours each way longer than normal. The bone tired guy bagging purchases related a similar story from a northern suburb. Their commutes have been this way since the first storm, almost a month ago.

Again, why?

For starters, our city has a rickety old transit system from the 1960s that loses any shred of its (highly debatable) charm as soon as the weather turns foul. 

There's no plan on the horizon for meaningful investment in the T, as we call our subway and bus system. Maybe we should rethink that, because I don't buy the hype that this winter is an anomaly.

Is The Snow of Doom our new winter normal?

Winter, as we nostalgically recall it. might be kaput, because polar warming sends the arctic weather our way. I hate to be a buzz killer, but we may need to contemplate the possibility that this trend won't magically reverse. The bitter Arctic Air that keeps the snow from melting between storms feels unlikely to self deport.

Consider: The neighborhood kids are tired of sledding.

When I was a kid, I may not have had to walk uphill to school through the snow both ways, but I never got tired of sledding. We'd get a big snowfall, we'd enjoy the sledding and snowmen for a few days, and it would all melt too soon.
Actual children bored with sledding: an unprecedented complaint from the kindergarten set.

Each storm wouldn't pile onto its predecessor, because in the 1980s, the New England climate didn't resemble Siberia's.

With everyone punchy and frazzled, it's uplifting to remember that The Snow has beauty. Unfortunately you need to leave the city to find it.

Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, February 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

Making Memories in the Park After Dark

I was five when the Blizzard of 1978 shut down Rhode Island for several days. My father got stuck at his office in Providence, for days that eventually morphed into weeks in family lore.

Everyone lost power in our coastal community. My mother, two-year-old brother, and I trudged a couple of blocks in the dark to camp with neighbors who had a wood stove. Cross country skis were involved. (My first ones were made by Karhu, of wood, and they were red and schlepped from Finland in hand luggage.) My brother sat in a sled and held a flashlight.

(I have many childhood memories of my brother holding a flashlight. It was his lot in our family life before he grew and graduated to carrying heavy items.)

That was the storm during which people became disoriented in their yards and died. And got trapped in their cars and died on the interstate.

I'm not certain 1978 was the one from which we learned to shut down cities before a major storm hits, but it at least got people thinking about common sense planning: travel bans and parking bans and emergency plans to get hospital staff to work.

The Blizzard of 2015 was kid stuff in comparison to 1978, but it gave the Grape two days off from school, and inspired a cooking frenzy in my kitchen.

Tuesday we racked up almost two feet of fluffy powder, but the winds weren't blowing anywhere near the forecasted "DOOM" levels here in Boston. So we logged many hours on the sledding hill.

But the best part was when the whole family trooped outside for a walk and some after bedtime sledding.

Boston looked like Finland Tuesday night, before the plows got any roads cleared down to pavement, and I wanted the Grape to see.

"We're making memories," I assured R., who very briefly questioned whether a fourth full-family trek into the storm was absolutely necessary.

I can't remember the city being so quiet. Even the bars and liquor stores were closed. Everything had stopped, except for the plows.

The silence of the stores reminded me of the way holidays used to be, before the big box stores set out to ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the department stores followed suit.

The Grape kept marveling at the snow covered, empty streets, and saying, "It's so beautiful." The snow was still coming down at this point, the travel ban still in place. Lila the Dog bounded ahead and we pulled the Grape in his sled. "It's like magic," he said.

I marveled that he was the only little kid out there taking it in, climbing the snow mountains to stand next to the stop lights and street signs while no cars skidded below.

"Take it in now, because it will all be salted and plowed away tomorrow," we told him.

After our walk, we went sledding in the park in the dark. It was a little before 9 o'clock and he was the only kid on the hill—the same hill that had been jam packed with his friends six hours earlier.

I thought it was a shame that no other little ones were out there to see the magic, the snow flickering against the streetlights for one rare silent night.

When something this special happens, bedtime can wait.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happy. Smiling. In Control. Or Not?

While sitting on a chairlift last Saturday afternoon, I overheard a ski instructor telling his middle-elementary-age charges, "We're happy. We're smiling. We're in control."

You could tell by the tone of the guy's voice that he'd had a long day.

But I thought, Fantastic. New family motto. 

Who cares if it's ten degrees out? We have appropriate gear, and we, by which I mean the Grape, should be grateful we get to go skiing in the first place.

I chanted the ski school guy's words at the Grape for the rest of the afternoon as he zipped down increasingly steeper slopes with grinning confidence. "We're happy, smiling, and in control."

Control is a good thing, R. and I agreed.

Which reminded me of one terrifying challenge looming: the Drop Off Play Date.

I'm a control freak who tries not to over-parent.

I let my kid climb trees. I let him ride ahead of me on his scooter or bike, because I trust him to stop and wait at intersections. I let him play in suburban friends' backyards with other kids, without an adult out there.

I've taught him to be as street smart as possible.

Not to trust cars to stop for us.

To avoid touching needles, broken glass, shit (human and canine), half eaten candy bars, realistic looking toy assault rifles, and condoms—all items he and his friends have encountered in the otherwise lovely playground across the street.

To respect unknown dogs. 

To give space to the visibly mentally ill and to drunks passed out on benches. Particularly if they have their pants down.

All necessary city skills.

I've also taught him the manners necessary to be a good guest.

He knows to say please and thank you, to flush the toilet, and remove his shoes when asked.  He understands that he is not to jump on furniture, and that he's definitely not to use any rude language.

I still get hives thinking of the Drop Off Play Date. 

The kind where the kid's parents aren't in my social network. (I'd have no problem whatsoever dropping him off with a mom I know.)

There are the two key differences between preschool and kindergarten: you no longer have any vote in selecting your child's friends, and you don't meet the other parents twice a day, every day.

We hosted a Drop Off Play Date last Friday. The Grape and his friend, a child from the kindergarten class, had a blast. 

But I was surprised that the mom, whom I couldn't confidently pick from a crowd, allowed me to pick her kid up in a car, and keep her kid at my house for four hours.

This is evidently what we're doing now.

I invited another new friend of the Grape's to come over, with her mom, whom I also don't know. The mom thanked me for the invite, but said she'd drop the child off for a couple of hours. She wrote, "It's time to let her spread her wings a bit."

These moms don't know me and we have no friends in common.

But am I the weird one?

I could be drunk all day. I could keep a loaded gun by the door. I could leave the kids in front of the TV and go get a massage. I could send them to the playground unsupervised while hosting a tryst.

The playground is, after all, visible from my bedroom window.

It's obvious to me that I don't do any of the above, but why is it obvious to a complete stranger?

Or do normal brains just not go there? Is the fact that we were all admitted to the same private school supposed to suffice? Because I'm pretty sure private school parents can be bad apples just as easily as public school ones.

I get angry with myself for thinking this way. It's paranoid, unattractive.

It does take a village, and at some point, we need to trust the village. Which is a hard thing for a control freak to do.

Even though I understand that the village self polices, to a point. If a child goes home and reports weirdness, I presume that reduces the chances of a repeat visit.

I've asked the Grape if he wants to go on a Drop Off Play Date, and so far, mercifully, he's told me, "When I'm six."

At which point, he probably won't receive any invitations, because he's declined too many.

I keep reminding myself: He is a full year younger than just about everyone else in kindergarten. A year is a huge deal at this age.

Maybe when he's six, I'll be ready to relinquish a little control.

I'll be more like these other moms, gushing, "Thank you so much for taking him off my hands for a few hours!"


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Santa, Report Cards, and the Chinese Nativity Set

The Grape's school provides a detailed report card at the end of each semester. It rivals power point presentations from my distant past, in terms of weight and thickness.

His contained no surprises, though one line item concerning library skills needled me: "Differentiates fiction from non-fiction."

The librarian, quite rightly, marked this as a "developing skill" for the Grape, which I interpret as progressive school speak for a C+.

I love libraries. I get that children need to learn to navigate the library. I just hate the timing of this curriculum point.


Because of Santa, and his magical team of elves, reindeer, and mind-bending transportation logistics, all of whom stand solidly in the non-fiction category in our house.

The Grape likes categories, and like lots of little kids, sees things as black or white. Watch gangs of little kids play. They never incorporate nuanced villains or flawed heroes.  It's good guys versus bad guys. Period.

The Grape came home from the school library and set to work organizing his books into fiction and non-fiction piles. The fiction pile towered high.

He held up one of our family's inter-generational favorites: Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas.

We read it in Finnish, but it's available in English and other languages. It has gorgeous illustrations and painstakingly detailed explanations about how the whole Santa Enterprises situation works: the post office and translation department, the stables, the airfield, the toy workshops and warehouses, the support staffing, the elf schools, the espionage, elf downtime.

It's all depicted as a culture of generosity, cooperation and friendship.

Kunnas writes with nearly Rowling-esque detail, and I highly recommend the title for any child who loves Christmas and picture books.

"Non-fiction," I proclaimed firmly, with only small pangs of guilt sticking in my gut. No protest from the Grape. He placed the dog-eared copy at the top of the non-fiction heap with visible relief on his face.

I do not know whether there is a God, but I love my kid's faith in Santa.

For every thing of wonder and beauty in this world, there is also tremendous cruelty and suffering on a scale impossible for most of us to comprehend. Santa fits with my philosophy of letting the Grape be little, unaware of the real evil in the world, for a few precious years.

Santa represents the best of childhood: magic, innocence, generosity without agenda. He shows up whether you remember to leave out cookies or not.

Despite what his detractors argue, Santa need not be about capitalist excess. In our house Santa brings gifts few in number, though admittedly high on wow factor. Santa dazzles; relatives provide.

I felt unprepared to fight back when moments later, the Grape declared Frozen to be non-fiction, too. "Because Princess Elsa, the real one with powers, came to my cousin's party."

I asked if he was sure. He said yes, while conceding she did not, in fact, use those powers to transform the premises into an ice castle.

I dropped it.

We have, at best, two years of the Santa magic left. I refuse to do anything that could jeopardize that beautiful, pure childhood wonder. I can deal with the Princess Elsa issue around Valentine's Day.

Just when I thought we were clear of this perturbing question, we reached the stickier wicket of Baby Jesus.

R. and I are not raising the Grape in the church, but we want him to be culturally literate, which in Western civilization, includes Biblical literacy. The stories inspired much of the world's greatest art, architecture, literature, and music.

I love Christmas music, though only after Thanksgiving. Most of it is religious, and it rings through our house for a month. The Grape and I know most of the words. I've never seen this as an issue.

I've also got nothing against Nativity sets; I came close to buying one when we were in Naples. It was gorgeous and fragile, and represented many weeks (months?) of an artist's labor.

It also looked tricky to transport intact while traveling with a two-year-old. Next time, I told myself.

Mistake. Big mistake.

This year, without warning, we found ourselves in receipt of the world's most garishly painted Nativity set, undoubtedly made in a Chinese sweatshop (like most contemporary American holiday decor), and addressed to the Grape.

"A barn!" the Grape proclaimed happily, and set to work arranging the figures. He decided the set needed some color, so he festooned a rainbow lei on the roof.

The angel looked like a vaudeville performer. Or a drag queen who didn't quite bring it.

The latter makes more sense. If I recall correctly, the Bible's angels were all men.

The shepherd was dressed in something resembling a mini-skirt, paired with gladiator sandals.  "He looks like he's going to the Pride Parade," the Grape observed.

All the human figurines had blushing peaches and cream complexions you'd never see on any native resident of the Middle East.

After watching him play with the barn for a while, R. and I explained the characters in the scene, to be met with the inevitable question: "Baby Jesus. Fiction or non-fiction?"

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I said firmly. "Like a legend."

The Grape frowned. "Isn't Christmas Baby Jesus' birthday?"

"Most likely not. It's Jesus' birthday observed. Emperor Constantine picked the date."

"Way too much information," R. hissed at me.

I tried to redirect. "He had a strong willed mother. Kind of like you. The date worked for many reasons, and she wanted a big birthday celebration for Baby Jesus. She really liked Baby Jesus. So yes, Christmas is pretty much Baby Jesus' birthday."

The Grape smelled uncertainty. His eyes narrowed. He picked up one of the wise men. "Which one is Constantine?"

"He came later."

He dropped the myrrh man and held up the (very strangely diapered) Chinese Baby Jesus figurine."Is this the same Jesus they kill at Easter?"


"They killed a baby?"

"No, it's another observed date. Jesus was older then."

"Easter is in April!" the Grape screeched. He counted the months on his fingers.


"Fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape practically howled.

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I repeated, with confidence.

"They killed a baby? A BABY? Why didn't his family protect him?" The Grape was incensed. "Families. Protect. Their. Babies."

At this point, I felt way out of my theological depth and called my mother, who didn't have a good answer, either.

"That's a fascinating question from a five-year-old," she said.

"No kidding. Why do you think I was trying to kick this whole conversation down the road a few years?"

Our household is culturally Christian—a notion I borrowed many years ago from Jewish friends who celebrate many of the holidays and traditions with which they grew up, but don't consider themselves observant.

(I know lots of people in this boat. I've got a whole post ready to go on what that means for us. It's too much to tack on here.)

"Is the Baby Jesus story fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape bellowed, for what felt like the hundredth time.

"Ask the librarian when school starts again," I said. "Ask her whether the Bible is in the fiction or non-fiction section."

My hunch: it's shelved with mythology, a topic covered in later grades. I'll report back.

It was a cop out, but bedtime was approaching and I wanted to get back to the safe territory of dancing sugarplums and flying reindeer.

The Grape put the animals from the Nativity safely into their barn, and told me "the people should go to a hotel."

I snarfed mulled wine.

R. remarked we needed to do better.

We put the Grape to bed and I stayed up late, re-considering when we ought to introduce the concept of Biblical literacy.

I'd wanted to wait until the Grape saw the world in a more nuanced way. For him to be old enough to challenge the idea that groups with differing beliefs are all good or all bad, and to be wary of exclusionary, judgmental spiritual outfits.

To understand that religion and morality are vastly different things, and that one does not necessarily flow from the other—though sometimes they're related, like when the church across the street gives away a grocery store's worth of food to the people lined up outside. Or when my mother spends a day at her church, peeling potatoes for the homeless (true story, many potatoes).

Other times, they are not. Like when we deposit new toys at the police station for Toys for Tots, or buy coats for the school coat drive. We help because it's right, not because our church commands it.

We already point out the good and try to teach him gratitude. But we've been shielding him from the bad and the ambiguous. Maybe that's okay. At least for one more year.