Campfire Classroom

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: California, Discoveries, Firsts, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop | 1 Comment »

You think you know everything there is to know about someone, then out of the blue they bust out something new.

Mark did this to me on Sunday. He told me that two of the best showers he’s ever taken took place since he’s known me.

Okay, I admit this is NOT the most scintillating tidbit. Not like finding out he’d been a prodigy on the tuba. Or that he had a tail surgically removed after birth. (Neither of those things, sadly, are true.) But, you know, when you’ve been married to someone for a while, any fresh little nugget is compelling.

So about these showers. The best of his life, he claimed. And before you envision some steamy Nine 1/2 Weeks acrobatic-sex scene, the showers he was referring to he actually took alone.

One of them was after a several-day backpacking trip we took through the Minnesota Boundary Waters. Back when we were dating. It was the kind of grueling balls-out adventure that had the potential to cement our relationship or squelch it. After several days we emerged from the woods exhausted, sucked-dry by mosquitoes, and with Mark missing a toenail. But strangely, still in love.

We were both chicken-fried in sedimentary layers of sunscreen, bug spray, and dirt. Oh, and sweat. Did I fail to mention we were comprehensively coated in deeply-funky homeless man strength sweat?

Well, yes sirree we were.

Mark remembers that first shower back in civilization quite fondly.

Then there was the bath Mark took in a fancy L.A. hotel room after completing the AIDS Ride. (Okay, so this wasn’t a shower per se, but his second best “bathing experience.”) Turns out that after a 580-mile bike ride, a soak in the tub does you justice. In the same way that doing anything other than pedaling your bike would probably be pleasant.

Since having had kids, neither Mark nor I have gotten much chance to do the kinda things that result in severe abstention from cleanliness. No long camping adventures. No immense feats of athletic endurance. And I don’t mean to show off here, but even when the kids were newborns we somehow managed to shower regularly.

So it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when we went camping for a weekend with Kate’s school, that we returned to the Land of the Stinky.

Yes, we’re the people who put camping equipment on our wedding registry, got a bunch of great new gear, then I immediately got pregnant. And say what you will about the merits of a Thermarest, I had no intention of settling my preg-o whale-like carcass atop a thin air mattress and hoping for any semblance of a good night’s sleep. I mean, even a world-class optimist like me knew that was too much to hope for.

But now Paigey’s well over three years old. We no longer have a baby as an excuse. (Take my notions of poor sleep as a pregnant camper and magnify those to the tenth power at the thought of bunkin’ in a tent with a baby.) So when Kate’s kindergarten sent out an email about a school-wide weekend in the wilderness, how could we say no? It seemed like high time to dredge up and dust off our sleeping bags, Nalgene bottles, and moisture-wicking clothing. Oh and those great little super-absorbant towels.

Sure, we were staying in a cabin. With bathrooms just a path’s walk away. And—get this—there was even a dining hall where we were beckoned by bell for meals three times a day. So it was hardly roughin’ it. But it was a perfect re-introduction to the wonders of the wilderness. A great way for Mark and I to revisit the concept of camping, and to envision it as an activity for our party of four.

And beyond re-igniting our desire to starting camping again, our whole family learned a little something new that weekend. So much so, that I started noting our various discoveries.

Here’s that list:

Electric Kool-Aid Gummi Bear Test
For the first time, Kate and Paige drank Kool-Aid. Paige dubbed it “gummi bear juice” and became immediately, devastatingly addicted. After polishing off a large cup she’d plead, “More, more, MORE gummi bear juice, Mama!” I started wondering what we could use as a methadone to ease her off the stuff on the long drive home.

And to top it off she had a big, smile-shaped, red Kool-Aid stain on her face. Kinda like a milk moustache, but larger and more terrifying. By weekend’s end I feared it was essentially tattooed on. She looked like The Joker from Batman—and with her sugar high, was acting only slightly less demonic.

Boys Like Fire
At the bonfire our first night, I learned that boys—especially 4th and 5th grade boys—really REALLY like fire. Trust me on this. My eyeball was almost on the receiving end of a flaming marshmallow several times. Some boys were skipping the s’mores altogether to focus all their attention on setting branches and leaves on fire. The way things were going it was only a matter of time until bratty siblings and controlling parents were tossed into the flames. I bugged out before the real pyrotechnics kicked in.

Tricks for Keeping Warm
On our first morning in the cabin, Mark handed Kate and Paige their clothes for the day and suggested they put them in their sleeping bags to warm up. Mind you, it was May, but still chiiiiilly where we were. (Saturday night dropped down to 40-something.) Anyway, I thought this idea of thawing your clothes before getting dressed was sheer spousal brilliance.

It pays to marry an Eagle Scout, ladies.

And the other thing? On Sunday morning when I was nearly swan diving into a cup of rank camp coffee to warm up, I learned that I’d bungled my attempts to not freeze during the night. I’d layered on lots of clothes before climbing into my super-schmancy hi-tech sleeping bag. (I am, after all, The First Lady of Wired Magazine Gadgets.) Anyway, in a not altogether flirtatious fashion, one of the dads from the school informed me that “less clothing is more” in one’s sleeping bag. As in, your body generates warmth that bounces off the sleeping bag and gets trapped there—keepin’ ya toasty.

But me? I’d intercepted my 20-degree sleep sack’s ability to be warm and womb-like by foolishly layering on leggings, a t-shirt, and a hoodie.

This explains why mountain men like to sleep in the buff. (Someone said that who was listening to our conversation that day, so I thought I’d say it too. But I actually don’t know any mountain men, and certainly have no insights into their proclivities for night-time garb—or lack thereof.)

Moths to a Flame
The first morning at the dining hall many of Kate’s classmates were clamoring around the industrial cereal dispensers—those long clear-plastic tubes that’re filled with different cereals. You churn a knob at the bottom to dump some in your bowl.

And you know what was in one of them? FRUIT LOOPS.

This, like the Kool-Aid, was life-changing for many of those all-organic, low-sugar, earthy-groovy-healthy California kids. Suffice to to say they were like moths to a flame. Or rather, like little robots aimed at a target who kept blindly walking towards it, bumping into it, then charging it again.

All those lies us parents had been spewing all these years—that the flavorless cardboardy organic Cheerio-shaped cereal was the most delicious and indulgent of breakfast options—were brutally laid bare.

I actually had some Fruit Loops myself that weekend. What a taste flashback!

And you know, they ARE pretty damn good.

Four-Legged Stroller
I have long contended that I will be pushing my children to their proms in strollers. Because they are the world’s wimpiest walkers. I know I should really just dispose of our Rolls Royce-quality double stroller altogether. But now I don’t think I’ll have to. Now that Kate’s been on a horse I’m convinced she’ll be more game for a pony than a Porsche when she turns 16.

I too rode a horse for the first time! Took a glorious hour-long trail ride on an amazing gorgeous trail. Even saw a real-live beaver out swimming in the river.

Nature! Real living nature!

I’m currently considering an urban-girl-goes-country wardrobe overhaul. The next time you see me wearing turquoise jewelry, a silver belt buckle, jeans, and boots, please just play along with it. I’m sure, like all good phases, it will pass.

When in Rome, Speak Roman
On the second morning in our one-room cabin, Kate rolled over and started yammering on about something to Paige. This was a thrilling chance for Kate to start her 12-hour-long Daily Talk Marathon a few minutes earlier than at home, where she has to walk from her bedroom to her sister’s before lurching into uninterrupted streaming chat.

Paige was groggy. She was un-used to the late bedtimes brought about by night-time bonfires. She harumphed. She whined. She rolled over. She pulled her blankie over her head. And finally, fed up, I heard her clearly, unemotionally say, “Suck it, Kate.”

I was stunned. And I think Kate was too—even though I’m pretty sure neither of them knew what it meant.

Kate quieted down. Paige dozed back off, and I lay trembling and speechless in my sleeping bag, not believing what I’d just heard my baby say. (Mark, as it turns out, was in the bathroom during this.)

Clearly the girls picked up more than just how to wield hot marshmallow-tipped sticks from the older boys that weekend. They learned a new nearly-swear. But blessedly—maybe because I didn’t react to it—it was one lesson that they totally forgot.

Kate is doing an overnight camp-out with her most-excellent super-expensive summer camp tonight. They’re sleeping under the stars, having a bonfire, s’mores, and lots of other good clean fun. At nearly six years old, this will be a big dose of independence for her. She’s stayed away from us with her grandparents before, but an overnight camping trip is truly the Big Girl big league.

I’m in that weird maternal place of feeling half thrilled for her and half sad about how quickly my girl is growing up.

And I’m looking forward to getting out to camp more this summer with our whole family. No doubt Kate will have a thing or two to teach us then. Hopefully it won’t be about being naked in your sleeping bag.

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All Hail to Principal Kate

Posted: May 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Firsts, Friends and Strangers, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Miss Kate | No Comments »

Mark and I are so going to rock the nursing home scene.

I know it may be a bit premature to get fired up about this now. But if our Bingo skillz are anywhere near as on-fire as our knack for winning raffles, we’re going to DOMINATE those oldsters.

Here’s the thing: Last year at Kate’s preschool auction we were ready to dart out the door early. The school was providing childcare and we had one hour of babysitting left. This compelled us (and some friends) to want to bee-line to a bar to guzzle as much booze as possible in that remaining window of freedom. (What is it about being a parent that makes you want to drink like a frat boy sometimes?)

So we’ve got one foot out the door. Quite literally. And we hear the auctioneer bellow, “Now wait a minute folks! We still have the raffle drawing for the instant wine cellar!”

With a dramatic flourish he sunk his hand into a glass bowl. He withdrew a stub, looked at it, and scrunching up his face he muttered into the mic, “I’m so bad at pronouncing these names.”

And Mark and I looked at each other. Because we knew.

Yes, thank all that is holy and bad for my liver—we won! (And the guy actually did a commendable job of pronouncing McClusky.) Yup, we took home more than four cases of vino that night. All different kinds, and all pretty good stuff—each family from the school having contributed a bottle.

I’ve found that many things labeled “instant” are not as good as their slower alternatives. Instant coffee, instant rice, instant mashed potatoes. But an instant wine cellar? Now that’s a good thing. Trust me.


A couple months ago, I dragged Mark by his ear to Kate’s elementary school auction. He’s not a fan of those sorts of big, canned social events. Here we were on a Saturday night having spent $40 a ticket to come to the school’s auditorium—a place we schlep through every weekday in far less fancy attire. But we bought the tickets and gussied up because private school is kinda like going to a chiropractor. Your back is never totally better. And private schools never have enough of your money.

So anyway, they had a silent auction, a live auction, and, I noticed as I stumbled across the dimly lit prom-like room towards the bar, a raffle.

I diverted my wine mission, and sashayed over to the raffle table, heady with optimism and the cheap pinot I’d been drinking. I requested two $25 tickets, and proclaimed to the mom-volunteers workin’ the table, “I’m gonna win.”

Oh it’s so BORING being this lucky. Yes, yes, we won AGAIN. (Yawn.) I mean, it’s nearly at the point where it’s just unfair to the other naive, hopeful raffle ticket buyers who we go up against.

But get this: This time there was no physical prize. Mark wasn’t making several trips back and forth to the car heaving heavy boxes of wine into the trunk, or worse, cramming in some over-sized blindingly-colorful classroom art project. This time we won something intangible, something experiential, something that would make our daughter get a taste of power she may never cleanse from her mind’s palette.

We won that Kate, our little kindergartener, was going to be principal of the school for a day.

Brilliant! We were beaming. You would’ve thought they’d awarded us Neiman Marcus matching his and hers hot air balloons.

The real principal emailed me a couple weeks later to set it up. “Would April 28th work for Kate?” she asked. I wondered what she thought Kate might have planned for that day, other than circle time, chasing the boys around the playground, and singing rainforest-themed songs.

Let me see… No meetings with heads of state planned. No bereaved families to visit. No fundraiser luncheons.

April 28th? Why… yes! She’s available!

At  drop-off one morning I bumped into the principal. She suggested that Mark and I brainstorm with Kate about what she might like to do for her day at the helm. “Let me know what she comes up with,” she said. “Then I can pick out some of things that’re realistic for us to put in place.”

We hadn’t yet mentioned this whole thing to Kate. Why, her teacher suggested, get her all hopped up about it when it was still a ways off? (That poor woman is painfully aware of Kate’s relentless tenacity when she wants something to happen NOW.)

Our brainstorm with Kate at dinner that night was an off-the-cuff chance to bounce around ideas. But minutes after introducing the concept to Kate, it seemed like she’d been planning for it for a lifetime.

She started spewing out ideas at a staccato pace. And what was dazzling was how damned realistic and implementable all her plans were.

“I want ten extra minutes of recess. For both recesses.”

“Pajama Day for the whole school.”

“Extra long reading time.”

“I’d like for everyone to be able to make postcards. Oh! And to send them to people they love.” (No surprise, this coming from Ms. Hallmark herself.)

If she’d hooked a laptop up to a projector and started reading from a PowerPoint presentation I wouldn’t have been surprised. The gal was apparently made for this job.

She was ready.

And as she rambled on, and I started envisioning her in a smart, trim, gray flannel suit, I found myself getting annoyed with all her efficiency and pragmatism. She was getting a shot at doing whatever she wanted to for a day, yet everything she dreamed up was so drearily restrained. So maddeningly practical.

Like, get this. At one point she threw out: “I want the snack in the after-school program to be fruit salad.”

Fruit salad?

Have we really been withholding sugar from her so comprehensively that her idea of unbridled food glee is FRUIT SALAD? What about candy bars? Chocolate cake? What about a frickin’ make-your-own hot fudge sundae bar for God’s sake?

I emailed the erstwhile principal the list of Kate’s annoyingly-reasonable demands. Then, a few days before her rise to power, a school-wide email went out announcing Kate would be the temporary Head of School.

That’s when everything changed.

Yes, what came next was the adrenaline-amped dizzying swirl that comes with anyone’s sudden rise to fame. And as her mom—playing a minor role in Principal Kate’s posse—I was sucked right into it alongside her.

At the playground after school the next day swarms of children gathered ’round me, jumping up, waving their arms, and vying for my attention. “Kate’s gonna be principal tomorrow! We get extra long recess! Kate made it pajama daaaay!”

I pushed past the throng wishing I had a security detail, and entered the relative sanctuary of the building. A couple older kids were slumped against the hallway wall, backpacks slung over their shoulders. They looked up at me from their conversation and said casually, “Hi Principal’s mom.”

It was almost creepy.

In the arts and crafts room I finally spotted Madame Principal herself. She stood there like some hot molten core, the focus of all the energy in the room. She was surrounded by a pulsating ring of pumped up, over-tired, I’m-friends-with-the-boss kids. Some were Kate’s real homies. Others were clearly making a play to get on her good side.

And then one child called out in a scrawny voice, “All hail to Kate!” And I kid you not, they all joined in the chant. “All hail to Kate! All hail to Kate!”

Over the din the guy who runs the after-care program mouthed to me, “It’s like she’s a celebrity.”

Walking to the car later, my little principal reached to hold my hand and asked, “What does ‘all hail’ mean?”

I swear, this is the kinda stuff Michael Jackson must have gone through as a kid.

Anyway, in the same way that it’s cool for a bartender to know your drink order—how it’s nice when someone shows how they know you—it’s also validating and happy-making as a parent when other people show how they really know your kid. Which was how I felt when I told various friends that Kate was getting a crack at running her school for the day.

My dad let loose his famous, booming expression of affirmation: “Oh ho ho!” (No, my father’s not Santa. But he does talk like him.) Others imagined how perfectly poised Kate would be in the role. And more than one amiga said something like, “When she becomes president some day, she’ll say she got her first taste of power in kindergarten when she was principal for the day.”

I adored every implication that Kate has confidence, smarts, and leadership qualities. I mean, folks were probably just thinking about how she’s bossy as hell. But in a silly proud way I indulged in the jokes about Principal Kate being the gateway to President Kate. I imagined myself feeling how Kate Middleton’s mom must have on her daughter’s wedding day—watching in amazement at all that her little girl had grown up to be.

I can see it all now. She’ll no doubt appoint Paige to be her secretary.

I wish I could outline the activities of Kate’s actual day in power. I wish, like a fly on the wall, I saw exactly what went down that fateful day. But this is one of those stories that gets you to the part you’ve been waiting for and then it turns out there’s no there there. If you were at the movies you’d probably walk out feeling ripped off, left to form your own unsatisfying conclusions about what really happened.

Put it this way, if you’re able to get a reliable detailed account of your child’s days at kindergarten, you’re a better mother than me.

All I can say for sure is that I dropped her off at school that morning to more playground fanfare. She was clutching a clipboard with a sign on it saying ‘Principal Kate.’ And she and the rest of the kids pouring in for the day were in their PJs (which, I’ll note, dramatically reduced the professional effect we were going for with the clipboard).

I snapped a few pictures of her sitting at the principal’s desk, and left as she and the temporarily-overturned Head of School were discussing the merits of lunching in the staff room.

I can’t help but think that one day, the incoming White House staffers will be elated to have finally made it to the big league. After all their over-achieving, the glory and glamor will finally be theirs. But then, for President Kate’s inaugural dinner, she’ll insist that fruit salad is served for dessert.

[Insert that "waah waah" sound effect to indicate disappointment.]

Ah well, at least they’ll get to wear their PJs to work.

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The Recipe Box

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Extended Family, Food, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Miss Kate, Mom | 5 Comments »

I recently discovered granola. Turns out it’s really good with fruit and yogurt.

Who knew?

I realize this is not a revolutionary finding. I think others before me have stumbled upon this holy trinity of foods. But what can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

At the holidays some friends brought us homemade granola as a hostess gift. It sat around for a while until I was desperate for food one day. Then, as these things usually go with me, I became obsessed with it. After devouring it all, I needed to lay in new supplies. And I remembered that my mother used to make her own really really good granola.

Over the years I’ve found that taste memories have been a weirdly strong way of reconnecting with my bygone Mama—through her wine biscuits, her chourico and peppers, and especially her Polish golumpki. So I was especially fired up to unearth this long-forgotten recipe.

And, luckily for me, I have her old recipe box.

I grabbed the black Tupperware thing from my cookbook shelf. It’s hardly a charming tin box decorated with little red roosters or the word “recipes” in some cute script. This thing is a dull dark rubber, awkwardly bigger than your typical 3×5 cards, and hard to wedge into a cupboard alongside anything else. It’s unapologetic in its homeliness and obtrusiveness. And, like everything in the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle life of my mom’s, it’s utterly and thoroughly disorganized.

Of the 200-plus index cards, newspaper clippings, and recipes scrawled on random notepaper (“Glens Falls Cement Company” and “State of Rhode Island House of Representatives”), there was no way to distinguish entrees from side dishes from desserts. If I wanted my granola taste flashback, it was going to take some digging.

But as I sifted through the recipes, some hilarious in their typification of the Bruno family’s Americana cuisine—Seven-Layered Salad, Seafood Newburg, Strawberry Molded Salad, Magic Cookie Bars—I came across something totally unexpected. Postcards that my sisters and I, along with some other folks, had sent to Mom.

I had my kids late in life (told you I was a later bloomer). I’ve spent the majority of my existence child-free. But there are times when I feel an especially acute super-saturated dose of mama-ness. And it’s not when one of the girls runs to me for a hug ’cause she bonked her head, or when one of them screams from the bathroom hallway, “I had an accident!” It’s other weird little times that are harder to put my finger on. But I do know that one of them for sure is when I feel the need to hold onto something that my daughters made for me.

This fall, with Kate just a few weeks into kindergarten, Mark and I went to Back to School night. All the parents were given a little envelope of things their kid had made for them. The one from Kate contained a bunch of different drawings, and a strip of maroon paper that had the words “My family is ____.” printed on it. In the space Kate had written in “SPSHL.”

I wanted to weep with how sweet it was, and run around the room waving it in the faces of all the other parents. “Look what my smart Katie did! I didn’t even know she could sound out and write words! Is this not TO DIE FOR?!”

If only there were a locket big enough for me to hang that thing from my neck every day. It’d be like some maternal gang medallion.

If the house ever goes up in flames, I’m running back in to get that scrap of paper.

So anyway, finding these post cards, wedged into my mom’s recipe box with the same lack of order everything else was shoved in there, was like unearthing a trove of her my-family-is-SPSHL papers. Things I can imagine she wanted to look back on one day. You know, some day when she was hot on the trail of her Spicy Swedish Meatballs recipe.

One card from 1996 is from my cousin Nancy, who my mom considered to be her fifth daughter. It’s entitled “Route 1 to San Francsico” and pictures the Pacific Coast’s dramatic cliffs and coastline. “I have sore, tired feet from traipsing all over this beautiful city,” Nancy wrote. “The weather has been pretty weird—but a nice change from R.I. heat and humidity.”

One card from London, date-stamped 1998 is in my sister Marie’s writing. “Yesterday was the queen’s birthday and they had a special ceremony at the changing of the guard.” Turns out they never laid eyes on her Highness, as they were hoping to. On that card my nephew—now a few years out of college—signed his full name in a sweet, loopy school-boy script.

And from Venice, in a card without a date, my other nephew reveals, “Daddy got us lost twice already.”

There’s a card from me praising the wonders of the new-fangled heat-resistent spatula, two of which I’d apparently included with the note. And my friend Amelia sent a save-worthy card, addressed to “Mrs. B” as she called her, thanking mom for the meatballs she’d made her and remarking, “despite my protestations, I haven’t taken off the kakhi J. Crew shorts since you kindly passed them along.”

There was one from my junior semester in Paris, and another from my sister’s visit to Rome. For all I know more cards will fall out of Mom’s battered Betty Crocker cook book the next time I haul it out for something.

Did I feel at all voyeuristic reading mail that was addressed to my mom? Nah.

The fact that they were postcards—generally not the medium one reserves for private or intimate communication—helped me get past any such thoughts. And with her gone, I can’t help but feel like any new discoveries about her world are fair game.  In fact, they’re happy accidents I relish.

Besides, it wasn’t the contents of the cards that was revelatory. It was finding them in this unlikely spot. Getting a glimmer of insight into what it was my mother held dear. Always one to choose home over travel, I imagine my mother cared less for the places we all went, and more for the fact that her people thought about her when they were away.

Kate’s class put on a play a couple weeks back. A fabulous rain-forest-themed musical where the kids sang in English and Spanish, signed all the words in ASL, helped make their costumes, and painted and built out the dizzying colorful set.

It was a tour de force. The students have come light years from their “My family is____.” exercise. And Kate, as Tree Frog #2, was unstoppable.

The day after the play Kate’s backpack was brimming with artwork as usual. As I sifted through the crumpled papers—some penned by Katie, other art-gifts drawn by her friends (“To my frend Kate, Love Emily”) I came across a yellow envelope that said MOM in red, surrounded by black hearts and stars. Inside it was this letter:

Thac you MOM!

For makeg my costom.

It was grat. Avre wun wonid to tac picshrs uv me! Thac you for hlpeg me practist my lins.

Love Kate

I had to sit down on the kitchen floor to read it again.

Thank you, my dear Katie. I’m not sure where I’ll stow this little gem, but you can bet that this letter is a keeper.

As for the rest of you, if you’re ever seeking out a recipe for Ratatouille, Tuna Casserole, Green Tomatoe [sic] Relish, Pecan Sandies, or something simply called Bean Bake, I’m your gal. I’ve also got one for a little crowd-pleaser called Cut Glass Torte, which involves two different colors of Jell-O, whipped cream, and graham cracker crumbs. Take that, Alice Waters!


I Did It… Their Way

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Preschool | 5 Comments »

We’re in children’s literature hell. I mean, if you could go so far as to call it “literature.”

Kate has become obsessed with a crappy series of chapter books about fairies. They’re formulaic Harlequin Romance-quality drivel. They make those V.C. Andrews books (I admit to having read) look like Shakespeare.

The books have unabashedly identical plot lines: nasty goblins and their evil leader Jack Frost wreak havoc on the lives of teensy airborne fairies who dress like slutty tween mall chicks. There are flocks (herds? armies? murders?) of fairies of certain types. So there’s a group of sports fairies, one of pet fairies, gem fairies, musical instrument fairies, flower fairies, even color fairies. Each fairy posse has a set of corresponding books with cutesie usually-alliterative names like Penny the Puppy Fairy or Susie the Seashell Fairy or Trixie the Tap Dance Fairy. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was Glenda the Gouda Fairy or Wanda the Walnut Fairy too.

And there are, of course, dozens—hundreds maybe—of the books. Enough for Kate to whimper and beg to take six or eight new ones home each time we’re at the library. Enough for Mark and I to fear we’ll be reading them for years to come.

Can you tell I don’t like these books? And I don’t even think it’s entirely due to my frustration that I didn’t think up the incredibly profitable franchise myself.

Part of what’s killing me is this: To nurture my daughter’s love of books, I’m told I’m should let her read whatever she wants. She got three chapters in to James and the Giant Peach with Mark, but then the allure of Christie the Crap Fairy became too great. We’ve read her Little House in the Big Woods and the wonderful My Father’s Dragon series, but in her spare time she’s curled up on the couch with Greta the Glitter Fairy.

God help me.

I tried getting her into the historical-fiction American Girl books. They’re in the intriguing big kid “chapter book” part of the library, and there are scads of them. Even though they’re part of a mega doll marketing empire, they seem to have a modicum more literary merit. But halfway through our first one the little girl’s best friend croaks from cholera and is carried off a ship in a wooden box. I saw it coming and made a flimsy excuse before reading that part that the book “was not so interesting after all.” Then I set it aside. Instead of death I’d rather have Kate’s mind embroiled in thoughts of Jenny the Jeans Fairy.

Anyway, it turns out that this ‘what I want versus what the kids want’ thing has become a bit of an emotional tug o’ war for me lately.

Like with Paigey’s recent birthday party. Her teacher gave me a list of the posse she hangs with at school. (I couldn’t fathom inviting the whole class.) I was thrilled to get a whittled-down list of kiddos, but I really like some of the parents of the kids who weren’t on the list. And this stymied me.

“I’ve chatted with Kendra’s mom a few times,” I called into Mark as he was showering. “I like her. But I guess Paige and Kendra don’t hang in the same sandbox circles.”

“And Avery’s parents rock,” I continued as Mark toweled off. “But Avery—not on the list. So do you think it’s okay if I  invite the kids of the parents I like? I mean, Paige will have fun no matter what. Right?”

Unsurprisingly, Mark was The Voice of Reason. “Kristen,” he said (and he only really calls me that when he’s kinda annoyed), “It’s Paige’s party, we should invite Paige’s friends.”

I finally agreed. But I wasn’t happy about it. (Motherboard’s talking about how to help parents see eye-to-eye about when they think their kids are old enough to do certain things. But there’s no mention about coming to terms on the kind of Mom vs. Kids issues I’m wrangling with.)

And then, at Kate’s school they recently started the winter session of after-school classes. I told Kate about all the fun and excellent things she could do—capoeira, chess, circus arts, wood shop. I’m not sure why I was surprised when she—the child personally accountable for the downfall of entire forests due to her prolific drawing, coloring, and art production—wanted to take a lame-o arts and crafts class about animals.

So I stalled. And blessedly, before sign-up forms were due, I found out that the folks teaching the classes were doing little demos at a morning assembly. (Something us parents are invited to.) I was certain Kate would get all fired up and want to take ALL the classes.

And it was inspirational. This swarthy Cuban dude rocked out on some funky instruments then walked on his hands. (I heard later all the gay teachers were swooning over him.) A woman in a bowler performed magic tricks, and an 80′s throwback chick with an asymmetrical haircut, baggy sweatpants, and an armful of rubber bracelets did an amazing freestyle hip hop dance thing.

It was incredible. I clapped like a madwoman after each demo, and was ready to follow the Cyndi Lauper look-alike to her car to see if she held classes for aging housewives.

But Kate was uninspired. She was steadfast in her desire to take the toilet-paper-roll-and-paper-plate crafts class from the substitute librarian. To think she’d bring home even more ungainly cardboard constructions that I’d have to sneak out to the recycling bin in the dark of night. (I’m not heartless about wanting to keep it all, but even Puff Daddy’s crib ain’t big enough to house all of Kate’s masterpieces.)

I asked myself, do I allow her to languish in her comfort zone—or as some softies would call it “let her pursue her own interests”—or do I push her to widen her horizons, see a fresh perspective, and get her groove on?

Well, as it turns out, I let her take the damn crafts class. I caved.

But I couldn’t help but wonder, WWACD? Which is to say, what would Amy Chua do?

Well, actually, I know EXACTLY what Amy Chua would do.

If you’ve been holed up in some underground hide-out Saddam Hussein-style, then you’re lucky to not be hip to the immense media firestorm set off by Amy Chua‘s recent book excerpt in the Wall Street Journal. Although she’s backpedaled like a madwoman ever since, she essentially posited that Chinese immigrant mothers are superior to Western moms. Stricter. More demanding of their kids. More hands-on. And let’s just say you won’t be invited to any of their homes for a playdate or slumber party. They’re too busy playing violin or piano (at gunpoint by their mothers) at all hours of the day and night.

Good times.

So yeah. I’d bet my lazy-American-mom collection of kid’s DVDs that Amy Chua’s daughters aren’t signing up for the Legos after-school class.

As much as I am SO over her excerpt, her book, her rebuttals, and this topic taking over the public radio airwaves more annoyingly than 20 concurrent pledge drives, I hafta admit, I have examined my mothering through it all. I’m not suddenly berating my kids publicly or quizzing them with Latin flash cards. But I am wondering why I don’t have a more clear idea of my expectations for them. Even if I don’t agree with Amy’s agro mothering, I wish I could be as cocksure about my own. I wish I was driven by confidence and determination to know when to push my kids in certain directions—away from fairy books, towards hip hop classes, whatever—and when to let them follow their own fancies.

Until I figure it out, I can rest assured with the knowledge that I’m at least not taking her approach. And maybe, if I keep reading enough of them, one of Kate’s fairy books will reveal the mysteries of mothering that I’m seeking. Somewhere in that series there must be Mable the Mama Fairy, right?


It’s Rocket Science

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Career Confusion, Friends and Strangers, Housewife Superhero, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Other Mothers, Working World | 4 Comments »

Kate was all hopped up at dinner. “Evan’s mom?” she said, in her sing-songy California-girl lilt. “So she came to school today? And she talked about her work? And she makes ROBOTS. And then? She sends them into OUTER-SPACE.”

“Oh. Really?” I said casually, ladling cooked carrots onto her plate, as if I’d sent a couple robots to outer-space myself that afternoon.

“And this one robot? Called Spirit?,” she continued breathlessly. “Well, it got STUCK on a planet. Up on THE MOON.”

“Actually it was Mars,” Mark corrected. (Smart aleck.)

“Oh yeah, Mars,” Kate went on. “So it got stuck there. Stuck!” Pause for dramatic effect, arms straight, palms down on the table.

“And so then?” she forged on, “Evan’s mom? She showed us pictures of all these robots she’s worked on. And then? We got to draw pictures of them and MAKE CARDS FOR SPIRIT.”

Now, drawing is Kate’s default no-fail super happy activity. And creating greeting cards is her knee-jerk response to nearly any emotional experience or moderately-noteworthy event.

A friend’s pet hamster dies? “I’m going to make a really special card,” she’ll say somberly. Paige’s preschool teacher sprains his ankle. “Please get my markers,” she’ll ask, like a doctor requesting a scalpel. “I have a card to make.” They’re out of the paper towels I like at the grocery store. “Maybe I should make the store owner a card, Mom? Do you think so?”

Aside from the things life tosses our way, there are the standard calendar holidays—St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Flag Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, Administrative Assistant’s Day. There are opportunities year-round that Kate seizes on to send her hand-drawn greetings out the world. It’s hard work, but she’s game for the challenge.

She’ll be the Intergalactic President and Creative Grand Poobah of Hallmark some day. Mark my words.

So anyway, Evan’s mom. As if the whole robot thing, and the space thing wasn’t mind-explodingly cool enough, the fact that there was also a heart-wrenching story to go with it all—Spirit’s tragic demise, inextricably stuck in martian soil—that was the ultimate piece de resistance for Kate.

She had never recounted a story from school with such gusto, detail, and emotion. And at the end of it, to think that the teacher uttered the words, “Let’s make cards.” It’s a wonder Kate didn’t implode with glee.

Now, not to be a sourpuss, but I couldn’t help but hear this story without thinking, how the hell does any other parent go into the classroom and follow that lead?

I can just picture Kate announcing proudly to her classmates, “My mom is coming in today to talk about being… a housewife!”

Imagine the shockwaves of excitement that would blast through the classroom. The kids will lunge at Kate, peppering her with a million frenetic questions. “Do you think she’ll tell us about doing laundry? Clipping coupons? Mopping up spills?”

At the end of my presentation, for the emotional finale, I can have the kids draw pictures of Paigey’s yellow pants. The ones that, despite my valiant efforts, I couldn’t get the grape juice stains out of.

We had to throw away those beloved pants. We shall miss them.

A friend is going through the all-consuming gut-wrenching private school application process we went through last year. We were chatting about the assessment part. For incoming kindergarteners it’s not so much an ‘interview’ as it is an ‘observed playdate’ with other kids.

Or, at least, that’s how they spin it. Because they certainly do lob questions at the kids while they’re playing. But since the parents are corralled off in another room, you don’t know exactly what they’re asking, or how your twerp is responding. Unless, of course, you interrogate them like a mad-woman once you get home. Like I did.

It turned out that almost every school asked the kids what their parents do.

“So what did you SAY?” I beseeched Kate. “What DOES Daddy do?”

“He’s an editor at Wired.  Um, Wired magazine.” she said, picking at a string on her sweater.

“YES!” Mark and I high-fived over her head.

“They asked what you do too, Mama,” Kate said looking up.

I stopped my mini she-got-an-answer-right dance and asked, “They did? And what did you say?”

“Writes a book,” she said quietly.

“NICE!” I bellowed, stabbing the air with my fist. (At the time, I had a now-neglected book proposal in the works.)

So, the gods were with me. Not only did Kate come up with the right answers (without coaching, no less!), she also dodged the whole host of unsavory housewifely duties she could have reported as my primary life’s undertaking. She could easily have said I “empty the dishwasher,” “cook hot dogs,” or “yell at us to hurry up.”

The truth is, what Kate thinks about what I do—or what I know about—has been the subject of past neurotic freak-outs. Mild freak-outs, mind you. But freak-outs nonetheless.

But I shouldn’t pin it all on Kate. Because it’s really ME who struggles with answering the simple question, “What do you do?”

It’s not that I don’t know the answer. I do, but it’s kind of a messy hodge-podge.

I’m a mom. A stay-at-home mom—sometimes. Because I sometimes manage projects for a web-design agency. Oh, and I blog. Though I hate the term mommy blogger. And do a little bit of freelance writing too. (Or, as Mark put it the other day, I’m a ‘write-tress.’ Which sounds a little too close to ‘waitress’ for my liking, but I still love the hilarious girlification of ‘writer.’ Girlification of any term is always good.)

So I know the answer. But aside from it being annoyingly discursive, I never like hearing what it is I’m saying. Or maybe I don’t like what I think it says about me. What it elicits in the minds of the people I’m talking to.

Instead, I want to tell people I’m a robotics engineer at NASA.

Is that so wrong?

Mark and I took the subway into SF for a holiday party at “the agency where I sometimes freelance.” We were both playing with our iPhones waiting for the train, and I asked him what his upcoming work travel looked like. To which he responded, “I’m in New York next week taping The Today Show, in Vegas for the first week of January, and then in March I’m back to Switzerland.”

Now, I don’t begrudge my husband his excellent career. He is so wicked super good at what he does, and he’s worked hard to do the cool things he gets to do. But hearing about all his upcoming fabulousless sent me into a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life spiral. By the time we got off the train I was dragging my knuckles on the ground in a woe-is-me funk.

Waaaaah! I might be taking the brilliant Motherboard story How To Act Like A Baby a little to much to heart. But—I want to stay in the new Wynn hotel! I want a fresh stamp in my passport! I want to schmooze with Matt Lauer in the green room!

What’s weird is, a few weeks earlier I heard from a old co-worker. Nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Told me about an executive job opening at a super hot design agency. Hooked me up with his friend, who was all interested in getting me in for an interview.

Cool, right?

But then I stalled. I was supposed to send my resume, but days went by and I couldn’t muster the effort. It was such a fabulous role in such a uber-hip place—something I’d have clawed at like a rabid racoon a few years ago—but I just didn’t have it in me. So I ended up emailing the guy and saying the timing just wasn’t right.

I want the thrill and sexiness and intellectual stimulation of work. I want the cocktail party cool-job bragging rights. I want the paycheck. Hell, I want the wardrobe.

But I don’t want the endless droning conference calls, or the late nights assembling PowerPoint presentations. And I certainly don’t want the 50 hours a week away from my family. Because, despite the self-esteem flogging my current life sometimes serves up, I want to be with my kids as much as I can.

Call it old-school, but it’s just what feels right to me now.

Every time an old woman in the grocery store looks at the girls then says to me, “It goes by fast!” I practically tear up and hug her and say, “I know! I know! Paigey is already almost three years old! And she’s my baby!”

Anyway, I decided to email Space Robot Mom. I mean, I barely know the woman, but that never stops me. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a poor role model for the “don’t talk to strangers” rule.

I told her how thrilled Kate was with her presentation. How interesting and super cool her work sounds. And how she’s definitely set the bar high for the mere-mortal parents of the other kids in Room 2. I told her I had a good laugh with some SAHM friends about the presentations we could do about our “jobs.”

I hit Send. Then I decided I was insane.

What the hell was I thinking? I’d have to withstand years of seeing this woman at school events with her giving me a WTF raised-eyebrow look. “Ah yes,” she’d think looking at me pityingly, “It’s that sad-sack housewife who was so bitter about my high-power career. WhatEV.”

But you know what? Here’s the crazy thing. She emailed me back almost right away. And she was SO COOL. I guess this woman is just so comprehensively cool that even my rantish mad-woman emails can’t make her flinch.

She was thrilled that Kate was inspired by her talk. She loves getting girls fired up about science and math. She apparently LOLed at my self-deprecation about my life as a domestic galley slave. She even said she was envious of MY life, on accounta I get to spend lots of time with the kidlings and she still struggles with the work-family balance.

A rocket scientist, jealous of me!

Then get this. She said, “Maybe after the holidays we can have a playdate or get coffee some time.”

How cool is that? I send her a deranged email putting my gigantic inferiority complex on display, and she wants to hang out! I think I’m going to like this chick.

I can’t wait to tell all the moms at the playground that I hang with the NASA set.


Highlights and Lowlights (and I’m Not Talking about My Hair)

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bargains, Birthdays, Books, Daddio, Food, Kindergarten, Milestones, Miss Kate, Movies, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Shopping, Summer | 3 Comments »

My friend Barb is perfect.

She’s extremely kind and thoughtful. She’s genuine through and through. She’s creative and silly and fun and smart. And, of course, she’s gorgeous. So much so that she was asked out on a date—approached on the sidewalk, no less—when she was nearly eight months pregnant.

If she wasn’t so wonderful, I’d hate her.

Barb and her hubby had kids long before Mark and I added to the world’s population problem. So going to their house for dinner always was an exercise in note-taking for our future family. One night after dinner I remember their kidlings hauled out a bunch of different instruments. We had a music and dance party that was such good clean fun I wanted to make lederhosen for them out of the drapes while belting out “The Hills Are Alive.” (Note to my sister-in-law: This is a reference to The Sound of Music. Which is a movie.)

At dinner each member of Barb’s family shares the highlights and lowlights of their day. It’s something we started doing, and a few of our friends have since picked it up from us. It’s a sly way to lure kids into old-fashioned dinnertime convos. I never knew how deeply shrouded in secrecy a day at kindergarten could otherwise be.

Someone recently told me she does this too, but calls it ‘Roses and Thorns.’ She borrowed the name from the Obamas. Such a schmancy Presidential Rose Garden spin! Hey, what’s good enough for Malia and Sasha is good enough for my girls.

I stumbled across some other tips on Motherboard for taking the gruel out of family din-dins. Did you know that the more family dinners teens attend, the less likely they are to smoke pot, run away from home, and dress like sluts? Okay, so I’m not sure about that last one, but I’m still willing to enforce the you-sit-right-here-for-dinner-Missy rule for a while to come.

So, where was I?

Well, God knows it doesn’t some dinnertime game to get me talkin’. But with 2010 in my rear view mirror, I’ve been thinking about some of my year’s highlights and lowlights.

First, for the highlights:

Best Times with Paige: Every day when she climbs on me in bed for our delicious morning snuggle. I love this even when it’s brutally hellishly early in the morning. I can’t help but think she won’t be doing this forever, so I’m basking in it while it lasts.

Best Times with Kate: Reading. This year Katie Pie learned to read, which was magical and thrilling. But she’s not exactly devouring books on her own yet. And I cherish the times each day that I read to her. For an active kiddo, she totally calms down, snuggles up, and gets absorbed in stories. It rocks. We’re reading chapter books now too, which has lots of great day-after-day satisfaction, like some weird good-for-you soap opera.

Best Meal: The first out-put of Mark’s food smoker—pulled pork sandwiches for Paigey’s 2nd birthday party. (Feeding the kids was a total afterthought.)

Best Dessert Recipes: Three-way tie between The New York Times’ Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake, Sunset’s Lemon Rosemary Buttons, and Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Cookies.

Best Yard Sale Bargain: Four Reidel stemless wineglasses for $2. (And to think I almost asked “For each one?” Ha!) Now I wish our vast Reidel collection was all stemless.

Best Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip: The Winter Olympics in Vancouver with Mark (who covered the games for Wired) and my dear collegiate frienda Brenda. If you have never been to this event, GO. It will renew your faith in, well, the world. Plus, you haven’t lived until you’ve gotten emotionally invested in a curling match.

Best Party We Attended: A Father’s Day brunch in our beloved friends’ the Bibbo’s back yard. We came for breakfast and stayed through dinner. Such fun. And the food! Oh, the food.

Proudest Mama Moments: Watching Kate walking into her first day of Kindergarten like such a big big sweet girl. And seeing Paige running around with the other kids at her 2nd b-day party. (If 2009 was about Paigey Wiggles learning to walk, 2010 was about her running and dancing and jumping and skipping and never looking back. Yippee!)

Best Televised Sports Experience: Watching a Canadian Olympic hockey game at a bar in Whistler with one of my best friends and my best (albeit only) husband. Man, those Canadians really do love their hockey. And their beer. (Turns out we do too.)

Best Life-Improving Purchase: Our super-cozy eco-groovy Keetsa memory foam mattress.

Best Happy Tears Moment: When I read the letter to Mark over the phone that Kate had gotten into to the super-excellent school she now goes to.

Best Date with Mark: His birthday dinner this November at Quince in San Fran. We forsook the entrees, ordered all five pastas, and had them bring us whatever wine they wanted with each course. And we didn’t talk about the kids once!

Best Summer Trip: Spending three glorious weeks at my dad’s house with the girls. The mercurial New England weather was set to Perfect Summer Beach Day the whole time. The girls were like little nature nymphs, dancing around in the waves and happily playing in the sand for hours each day. (TV? Who needs TV?) The 4th of July parade rocked, like it does, especially with all the far-flung friends we’ve managed to have to join us in Bristol. Best of all, we got truly excellent quality time with my Daddio, who watched more patio-staged ballet performances, and drew more hearts and princesses and rainbows then he ever bargained for.

Best Dose of I-Still-Got-It: Shaking off years of professional rust to do some freelance work at the very cool design firm in SF Hot Studio. A week into the project I told someone I’d been working at home as a mom for the past two-plus years, and he said he couldn’t believe it. (When he sneezed and I automatically started wiping his nose, I think he caught on.)

Best Home Furnishings Score: When my sister unloaded about a dozen duvet covers, sheet sets, pillows, bed skirts, and cloth napkins on me from her vast and fabulous personal collection. I now have a bad-ass world class bedscape. But it also takes an extra 20 minutes to move the pillows off our bed before going to sleep at night.

Best Wine: The huge-ass bottle (I think that’s what vintners call it) of supreme Surh-Luchtel vino that our friends Don and Shelley brought to a party at our house. Not only did it have A LOT of wicked good wine it it, the bottled was inscribed with our wedding invitation. (Try registering for that.)

Best Personal Challenge: Doing Oakland Adventure Boot Camp this summer/fall. I pride myself on voluntarily waking up at 6AM every-other morning, as well as the endless rounds of push-ups, wind sprints, and squats with medicine balls. Go me.

Best I’m Not As Young As I Used to Be Moment: Playing field hockey at my 25-year high school reunion. The other team (our old rivals who were also in town for their reunion) decimated us, but it was hilarious getting out on that field again. And it’s nice knowing that nothing I do now requires a mouth guard.

Best Foodie Celeb Sighting: Meeting Sarah Foster at her cafe/store Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we spent another fine Miller Family Thanksgiving.

Best Novel: The Help. But I also *loved* The Eloquence of the Hedgehog.

Best Non-Fiction Book: Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. Mark got to know Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago) after writing about him for Wired, then contributing to his dazzling cook book. Even though I know the story, it was a total page-turner. I was lucky enough to read an advanced galley. When this book comes out in March, if you have any interest in the foodie realm, check it out. It’s way cheaper than a dinner at Alinea.

Best New TV Show Addiction: Seems pretty trite and light-core, but it’s Parenthood. A friend of mine said he and his wife were TiVoing it, but before they’d watched it someone told her, “I LOVE that show. It’s makes me laugh! It makes me cry!” So my friend’s wife went home and deleted it from their TiVo. Well, I admit it’s made this Mama laugh and cry too. I wuv the cast (Peter Krause is the celeb version of Mark), but there are a couple actors I loathe, which it turns out I actually kinda need in a show. And, of course, it’s supposed to be set in Berkeley. So I dig seeing the local landmarks, the Craftsman houses, and of course, the bra-less women and pot-adled liberals.

Best Old TV Show Addiction: Tie between Dexter and Damages. Glenn Close is so good at being bad. (What else should I be watching on DVD?)

Best Party Mark and I Threw: Hiring a chef to cook dinner for our six nearest and dearest Oakland friends, and my dad and stepmother who were visiting from Rhode Island. All I had to do was buy a centerpiece, set the table, and take a shower. Bliss! Plus, the food rocked. As did Dad’s card tricks.

Best Kiddie Music the Whole Family Can TolerateLaurie Berkner

Best Self-Preservation Maneuver: Hiring a “hangover helper”—i.e. a babysitter to come over one Sunday at 7:30AM, the day after we had a party. She whisked in, took the kids out for breakfast and to the park, and allowed Mark and I some desperately-needed sleeeeep. This was such a supremely smart idea I think there’s a business plan in there somewhere.

Best Meeting I Attended: One in which it was determined that Paige was doing so well (physically and verbally) she was no longer eligible for the state’s early intervention services. Woo hoo!

Best Article of Clothing I Bought: A brown cotton Max Studio dress that I wear like it’s my favorite pair of jeans. Looks kinda like this one.

Best Hobby I Got Back Into: Reading. And really, reading one good book is like grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You want to start reading everything. According to the widget on this here blog, I read 20 books in 2010, about two a month. And that doesn’t count the small handful I started and abandoned.

Best Gift I’ve Used Every Day: When Mark was in Switzerland last winter for work, he bought me a fabulous perfect-for-everyday-use indestructible Freitag purse. It’s fabulous, and he’s fabulous for having such good taste (in wives, and in business-trip gifts).

Best Kitchen Gadget: An electric kettle, which I dropped and broke last week. It had been great for everything from making tea, to hot water for the kids oatmeal.

Best Stupid Comedy Rentals: Step Brothers (AMAZING tip, Drew!), and The Hangover. These bad frat-boy-humor movies were so damn good, I can’t believe I ever liked (okay, loved) Dumb and Dumber.

Best Stay-cation: Our Christmas/New Year’s break. The kids were off school for two weeks, and Mark was off work (for the most part) then too. It was the perfect balance of social plans, sleeping late, and lazy rainy days. Mark and I gave each other time for golf (him) and yoga (me). And I didn’t get out of my PJs all day on Christmas. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Best Social Event: My high school reunion. If everyone waited until they were in their 40s to go to high school it’d be a much friendlier place.

Best Compliment: A babysitter told me I look like Ari Gold’s wife, Mrs. Ari, from Entourage. She was certain I “must hear that from people all the time.”

As for the year’s lowlights, I’m happy to report there were far fewer than the highlights. Which also means this blog post will end soon(ish) for you. Phew!

Saddest Loss: Mark’s wonderful grandpa passing away. And my Dad’s BFF and most-excellent neighbor, Eddie, and my sweet Uncle Ade also died.

Worst Foot-in-Mouth Moment: Asking a mother at Paige’s preschool if she was a nanny. Ugh!

Worst Mama Moment: How much time do you have? Seriously, nothing huge and hideous comes to mind here, THANK GOD, just a long list of times when I’ve lost my temper, raised my voice, irrationally barked out a, “No!,” or had my own form of grown-up of tantrum. You know, the usual stuff.

Worst Weekend-Away Phone Call: The one in which Mark reported that Kate got kicked out of kindergarten. Just for the day. But still.

Worst Morning: Crying at boot camp—while running the stairs!—because I had barely slept the night before (see Paige’s sleep issue below). The petite drill sergeant trainer gave me a double dose of tough love, when what I needed was a wee bit o’ encouragement. (At least she emailed me an apology that afternoon.)

Worst Weather Interference: A local daytime Halloween parade is a supremely super-fun place for kids and Halloween-obsessed adults (like moi) to revel in the holiday. This year it rained. Waaah! I was like a bride on her rainy wedding day. Even though the die-hards still came out, the raincoats over costumes were a bummer.

Worst Wretched Sleep Pattern: Paige went from being a star sleeper, to the kid who gets out of bed 15 times after you tuck her in. Plus a few times in the middle of the night. Oy! We’ve considered returning her to her crib (since this all started with the move to her Big Girl Bed), but I fear if we did that we’d leave her in it ’til her teens. And that’d bring about a whole ‘nother host of unsavory issues.

Biggest Regret: Realizing that the 8-hour drive to Palm Springs to visit my sister Judy is totally do-able with the kids—especially with a DVD player in the car. Why haven’t I been going to see her more? (And this doesn’t come solely from my desire to score more sheets.)

Worst Airline Travel: Twice—or maybe even three times—this year we’ve taken family trips with flights departing at 6AM. One time Kate refused to get dressed when we woke her up. We finally put her in the car in her panties, since we were about to miss our flight. At the long-term parking lot her tantrum continued, until Mark and I strong-armed her into her dress and shoes (a lovely public display of excellent parenting). Later, in a long busy airport hallway, she had another diabolical fit. Over her head (and while pretending to not be her parents) Mark and I vowed to never take a 6AM flight again. No matter how much cheaper the tickets were. And then, we went on two more trips with 6AM departures. Sigh.

Saddest Farewell: Our long-time nanny and friend Shelly moved back to Israel this fall. We are thrilled that she is back with her family and friends, but we miss her madly! It’s super sad to not know when—or if—we’ll see her again.

Most Shameful Injury: Pulling a groin muscle while bowling with the kids and Mark’s parents on our Thanksgiving vacation. My chiropractor said, “I don’t know what’s worse: Admitting you were bowling, or that you got injured while bowling.”

When it’s Mark’s turn to tell his day’s highlight at dinner, he sometimes says, “Right now.” Even though it means a relatively early dinner hour and food that’s geared towards the whole family, we’ve been making an effort to eat with the girls every night,. (Except for when we ditch them with a sitter and go out.)

So it’s sweet that our family meal is sometimes the highlight of Mark’s day. Either that, or his work day really sucked.

Now Kate and Paige sometimes use “right now” as their highlight too. Which would be fine if it wasn’t on the days I’ve busted my butt to take them to the beach and out for ice cream, or to a children’s museum, or to some other kid-gasmic concert or party or special event. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it takes the wind out of my sails when the turkey burgers en famille beat all those other things out.

But maybe I should wise up a bit to Mark and the girls. Maybe the best highlight of all is the sum-total of our sweet family dinners together. Maybe turkey burgers really are the key to happiness.

I love you, Mark, Kate and Paigey, my three life highlights!

And Happy Happy New Year to the rest of you. In 2011, may your highlights blast your lowlights out of the water.


Kissing Frogs

Posted: December 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Discoveries, Firsts, Holidays, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate | No Comments »

If you’re looking to make a new amphibian friend, come on over to our house. Because this holiday season we’ve opened our home (and yes, our hearts) to Freezey, Room 2′s pet frog.

I love Kate’s school. Really and truly a wicked wicked lot. But man, do they send out a lot of email.

We get a school-wide “Friday Notes” email from the director. The same day we get a classroom newsletter from Kate’s teachers. Then every other day of the week we get anywhere from two to 300 other emails on topics of varying importance and interest from folks ranging from art teachers to the hot lunch lady.

Somewhere on the application we must have forgotten to de-select a box that said our email address would be shared with every school administrator, teacher, and janitor who has a lot to get off their chests.

I’ll have to check, but I’m nearly certain that in small decorative script bordering the school’s crest is the motto, “You can’t ever over-communicate. But we keep trying.”

And in case you missed reading it there, they sent that out in an email too.

A mom from the school recently emailed me about getting our kids together for a play-date. I shot back the response, “We’d love to, but I’m too busy reading email from the school.”

Which I found uproariously funny. Like I sometimes do with things I say.

So anyway, when I got Kate’s class newsletter a couple weeks ago—which actually DOES relay lots of info I DO care about—it fell to its usual low-priority place in my email in-box. Behind more pressing messages like snarky responses from friends to my Facebook status updates.

When I finally did read the newsletter, I saw that the teachers were looking for a home for the class frog. It’s really a wee wee thing. No flabby croaking bull frog. Just a little underwater dweller, no bigger than my thumbnail.

My immediate reaction to this request was something along the lines of, “No way, sucka.”

But on second thought, my frosty heart melted a bit. It might be fun for Kate (and Paigey) to have the thing at home. We’re not going anywhere for the holidays—’staycationing’ as they say. No relatives visiting, elaborate plans, or parties to throw. So why not throw open the doors of the McClusky estate to a small, homeless frog? Perhaps, at the very least, we could afford him a brief respite from the trauma of 25 children constantly tapping on his tiny tank.

Instead, there’d be just two kids doing that.

And two adults.

I asked Kate if she’d like to frog-sit. Suffice it to say, my eardrums bled after experiencing her extremely loud and positive reaction to the possibility.

It was a “first to respond wins” sort of deal. But by this point it was Saturday. The email had gone out the day before. God knows what other parents had jumped at this offer in a more timely manner. We’d likely missed the boat, and I’d be spending the entire two-week break comforting a heartbroken Kate because Freezey the frog was living it up at Gemma or Henry’s house.

Which would, no doubt, set a vicious domino effect into motion resulting in Kate not getting into an Ivy League college.

I mean, not that I ever think about that.

Every three minutes for the remainder of the weekend Kate yanked at my arm and bellowed in my face, “Did Alice email you back?! Do we get to take Freezey? Do we, Mom?!”

It was fun.

Monday morning as we walked towards the schoolyard I prepped Kate for defeat. If it turned out that Freezey was going home with another kid, there would still be things in her life to look forward to.

Upon seeing one of her teachers, Kate screamed and panted out her question in a brink-of-hyperventilation state.

“Freezey…,” the teacher said slowly, like some reality show host announcing the winning contestant, “Is going home with… YOU!”

I nearly vomited, had a migraine, and wept all at once. I was blinded by joy and luck and sweet, beautiful tantrum-avoidance.

So it wasn’t until I got into the car later, watching Kate prance around the playground from friend to friend sharing her giddy news, that I began to fret.

The thing is, Room 2 used to have two frogs. Freezey’s friend (lover? life partner? tank mate?) Cutie Pie, recently, uh, croaked. (Couldn’t resist that one. Sorry.)

Yes, a couple weeks ago I picked up Kate from school and heard all about the funeral, the tears, the card-making, the sharing of feelings about loss. Cutie Pie, she explained, had started to hang out under one of the orange rocks in the tank. Then never came back out.

Some valiant dad did the honors of removing the corpse. Cutie Pie was buried under a tree outside the classroom. “And we had to change the water in the tank after,” Kate said somberly. Cause really, who wants to swim around in Death Funk water?

Kate was especially hard-hit by this development since in a contest to name the frogs, her submission, “Cutie Pie,” won out in the voting. Cutie Pie, by all accounts, was Kate’s first baby.

My God, I thought, leaning my forehead on the steering wheel. If I ask for only one thing in my life, it will be that Freezey doesn’t die on our watch.

Thursday, a day before school even let out, the teacher emailed me. “Could you take Freezey home this afternoon?” Kate, she said, “was enthusiastic about this idea.” (Read: Pestering the poor teacher incessantly.)

I figured, if we are going to kill this animal, why not start a day early.

I drove home that day with Freezey more slowly then I did taking a newborn back from the hospital. (Alas, if only Mark had been available to sit in the back seat with the small frog.) No water sloshed from his tiny plastic home. No apparent trauma was suffered from what must have been violently changing environments—through the kid-packed school hallway, to the gray-rugged Subaru floor, to several different settings in the house while Kate sought out the perfect place to keep him. She was like Thom Filicia in a tizzy to select the ideal nook for some avant-garde Japanese piece d’art. The feng shui apparently had to be impeccable.

As I cooked dinner that night Kate bellowed out status reports from her room. “He looks sad,” she wailed. And, like my dad who has a low threshold for anything bleak or dismal, I called back, “Honey, I’m sure he’s fine! He’s HAPPY! Happy to be with us. Happy to be here for his Christmas vacation.”

But Kate was un-convinced. “He’s sad,” she repeated more quietly, almost to herself. “His eyes… they look sad.”

It wasn’t until I’d slapped dinner on the table, bathed the kids, and was clearing away dishes later (don’t mean to glamorize my life here), that I glanced over at Freezey in his new approved tank spot. (Note: I’m avoiding the term “resting place.”)

I took a couple steps closer. First off, his pale gray skin doesn’t exactly convey the image of robust health. But more than that, what concerned me was that the critter was fully submerged, spindly legs splayed out, and utterly unmoving.

I panicked. HE’S DEAD.

But Kate sashayed in and drawled a hello in his direction. Picking up on my frantic Mama vibe, she reminded me how he got his name. “Mommy,” she said, with the weary exasperation of a child three times her age. “He’s called Freezey because he almost never moves.”

Wonderful. I have to spend the next two weeks tending to an animal who is fervently adored by Kate and 24 of her dearest friends, while he plays dead.

I was jolted into a deep maternal panic, more intense than any fretting I’ve done for my own human offspring. I considered emailing the teachers to see how they manage to ascertain Freezey’s  alive-ness. But with 25 human five-year-olds in the room, I decided it probably wasn’t a priority for them.

In the ensuing days I’ve felt like Shirley McLaine in the opening scene of Terms of Endearment, convinced her sleeping baby’s not breathing. She shakes the infant out of a peaceful sleep to a full-bore wail, breathes a sigh of relief and says, ‘That’s better.”

If only I could hold a wee mirror up to Freezey’s mouth to be assured of his breathing. Unfortunately, that trick won’t work in an underwater setting.

At any rate, it turns out that having 1.5 ounces of amphibian around the house has had a happy impact on the place. Kate and Paige came home from a holiday party Friday and held the spoils from their stockings up to Freezey’s tank. They waved candy canes in front of the glass, and relayed the thrilling details of their day, hoping to gain Freezey’s barely-conscious approval. They were like Kim Kardashian vamping outfits in the Prada dressing room for the admiration of the ambivalent salesperson.

Last night Kate strained to stay awake until Mark returned from his work trip. Not to lay eyes on her sorely missed father, but “to introduce him to Freezey.” When it became clear she might fall asleep before that was possible, I had to vow I wouldn’t let Mark near the amphibian sanctuary, so Kate could do The Reveal in the morning.

No doubt sealing our fate for a brutally early wake-up call.

But despite that I’m glad I ignored my initial impulse to avoid temporary custody of another living being—albeit a small caged one that only requires feeding twice a week. Even though this could be a terrifying precedence-setting act, one that lays the groundwork for years of hamster, snake, and hermit crab classroom critters coming home with us at holidays and summer breaks—so be it. We’re just a few days in and Freezey’s already served up some sweet moments of childhood glee.

I’m also coming around to the little guy (gal?) myself.

And we haven’t even fed him yet! A prospect Kate says involves pellets that are “really stinky” and requires one to “wash hands really well after.” I can already picture Paige feeding her dolls and lamby pretend food pellets. That is, if she doesn’t decide to stick a candy cane inside Freezey’s tank first.

Yesterday, as I cleared the breakfast dishes from the table, I paused by Casa La Freezey to take a peek at my new frozen friend. He was facing outward, which I took as a thrilling sign of life, since at Lights Out the night before his typical dead-man’s-float position was facing the wall. From this new angle I was able to look at his face for the first time. And I nearly dropped a plate of scrambled eggs when I saw that his eyes really DO look sad.

So now, amidst last-minute shopping, holiday baking, and keeping the kids entertained while school’s out, I’m all hopped up on finding some way to pull my new chum Freezey out of his glum froggy funk.

I wonder how the school will feel about us taking home one frog, and bringing back two.

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Making a List, Checking it Twice

Posted: December 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Holidays, Kindergarten, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Scary Stuff | 4 Comments »

I was a little late to the game this year, but last week I finally put in my order for our Christmas cards. All 265 of them.

When did I become this person?

I mean, how could it be that we send out so many cards? It’s not like this was something my mother ever did. She had an aging trove of Christmas cards stashed away in the bottom drawer of her roll-top desk. (The same desk I use today.) Cards with cardinals and pine cones on them, and sometimes an old-school dusting of glitter. And she’d send out maybe nine or so each year, and write personal notes in each one.

She was far from gussying us up in velvet headbands and fair isle sweaters for holiday photo cards. (Like I do—sometimes at gunpoint—with my girls.)

And in her crusty New England way, she found it tacky for people to send holiday cards to local folks they see all the time.

Well, clearly she’s never met my dry cleaner.

Okay, so I only wish I was kidding about sending our dry cleaner a card. It’s actually the first year they are on Our List. The thing is, they’re just a few blocks from us—the sweetest Chinese family you’d ever want to meet—and they do that thing where they display all their customers’ cards in the store. It’s so darn neighborly. For years we’ve been looking at our friends’ kids pictures under the glass on the counter. Hell, this year we’re getting in on the action too.

Along with sending a card to our pediatrician who also showcases them, but in a much more taped-to-the-walls shucks-we-love-our-patients kinda way. Every winter when I’m in the office for some inevitable kiddie illness I scan to see if our card got good placement.

I know. Pathetic, right?

But kinda true. Even though I know some secretary is just taping them all up like a zombie in no particular order, and getting paper cuts and complaining under her breath that it’s not part of her job description. Still, I want to feel like my kids aren’t hidden behind a pile of back issues of Highlights magazine.

My from womb-to-tomb friend from home, who I’ll call Adeline, well, her parents had a hard-core Christmas card system. When I was at their kitchen table once around the holidays I noticed a long list of names. There were check marks by some of them. Turns out that if Adeline’s parents didn’t get a card from someone they’d sent one too, that person got cut from their list next year.

Seemed kinda harsh to me at the time. But really, that might be a good way for me to whittle down my list a bit.

Anyway, about the cards. I insist on sending ones with pics of the girls. I love seeing my far-flung friends’ kids who I rarely get to lay eyes on. And even though Mom would call me gauche, I even send cards to our neighbors who live RIGHT NEXT DOOR. (And yes, I send them through the mail. So sue me.)

I have the good fortune of having an amazingly crazily talented photographer amongst my nearest and dearest amigas. And even though my brain tells me I should not constantly hit her up to take pics of my kids—even though I know I should respect some sort of separation of church and state in our friendship—I just. Can’t. Help. Myself.

So despite how madly busy and in-demand she’s been, and despite how she even kinda sorta outright told me she wasn’t doing holiday card shoots this year—and despite the fact that I know she hadn’t even had time to take pics of HER OWN KIDS—despite all that, well, I showed up at her house with the girls. With their hair all neat and combed. And their Christmas dresses. And even a wreath to use in the background in case she didn’t have any decorations up yet.

When did I become this person?

And if that weren’t already obnoxious enough, I then had to plead and beg and whine and bribe to get Kate to take off her paint-splattered school clothes and put on the dreamy Christmas-in-Norway dress I bought for her. It was hot, it was itchy, it was miserable, she complained.

But I was blinded by my vision. She would wear that dress, damn it. We would take the picture.

And you know? She did. And Mary, bless her heart, took the picture. And I likely alienated both my daughters and my friend. But damn, did I get a cute photo.

You’ll see. You’re probably getting a card from us.

My holiday mania knows no boundaries. Or decorum. Last week, like some lunatic mother hopped up on spiked eggnog, I approached the two kindergarten teachers on the front steps of Kate’s school. In the swirling chaos of afternoon pick-up I huddled them together and asked, demanded, interrogated them: Why in all that is fun and good and festive, is there no holiday pageant or party or play at the school? No musical medley? No special assembly? No small child wearing a poorly-adhered white cotton-ball beard who charmingly forgets his lines to the delight of all the adults?

The thing is, I think I KNOW why. Though those poor parent-pecked teachers don’t make the policies, I think the reason no one’s makin’ merry ’round Kate’s school is in our Northern Californian politically correct overdrive, there’s some fierce anxiety about not representing every possible religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, hair color, shoe size, and holiday.

Of course, the nice scared-of-me teachers did not tell me this. While likely beckoning to security to have me dragged away, they kindly informed me that there actually IS an event. A small celebration that no one needs to dress or bake for. Parents don’t even attend.

And the event is for—get this—Festivus! Yes, my child’s school is borrowing from a time-honored Seinfeldian tradition and celebrating the for-the-rest-of-us holiday. I wonder if they’ll be incorporating the traditional Airing of Grievances. Or the Feats of Strength in which the host is wrestled to the ground and the celebration isn’t over until he’s successfully been pinned.

Maybe, if the kids are lucky, they’ll also get to not decorate the Festivus pole. (It’s traditionally left bare.)

Actually, the teachers explained that in their interpretation of the anti-holiday, the kids will go from classroom to classroom where multiple craft projects will be set up.

Who knows, maybe they’ll do a Jell-o shot in each room too, like some college dorm party.

Well, what can I do? Is there a small part of me that thinks a school’s homage to Seinfeld is funny? Sure. I mean, I had a crush on George Costanza just like the next gal. But this Festivus work-around still doesn’t satisfy my need to gather as a community and get into the spirit. I guess I’ll just have to loiter around some Catholic school pageants to get my fix of Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

In other holiday happenings, I have managed to show some restraint. For years I’ve spearheaded day-long nap-robbing family field trips to scenic far-off Christmas tree farms. We’d spend $120 to chop down runty picked-over trees, buy hot chocolate for the kids even though it was 68 degrees, and inevitably someone would barf on the drive home. But this year I’ve tossed my Norman Rockwell tree-fetching fantasies aside. On Saturday we went to—wait for it!—Home Depot for our tree.

It was close by and convenient. The tree was $35. And it’s hands-down our biggest and best-looking tree yet.

This was a breakthrough for me.

Mark was thrilled.

And while I’m on a roll, I might as well brag that I’m also NOT taking my children to sit on Santa’s lap. Nope, not this year, or possibly EVER AGAIN. (Unless of course they beg for it.)

I have a friend who lines up wonderful pictures of her kids with Santa along the top of her piano. She’s had them taken every year, and I’m so deeply jealous of the freakin’ consistency and tradition and keepsake-ness of it all.

But my kids fear the man in red. One year when Kate was about 14 months, I waited in an endless Santa line with a Mama friend and her son. I’d just finished telling her how I’d weaned Kate. And then, when we finally stepped into the tool-shed-like roofed Santa nook, Kate took one look at Santa, then clutched me in a full-bore panic. She started balling, screaming and pumping her fist open and closed, signing for “milk.”

So we detoured to a red velvet-ish settee surrounded by poinsettias, where I caved on the she’s-finally-weaned thing I’d just gone on and on to my friend about.

Eventually Kate was willing to have her pic taken, but only if she stayed on MY lap. I kind of held her over towards Santa, and leaned back so they could crop me out. It’s a wonder my bare boobie wasn’t in the picture too. (Now THAT would have made a memorable card.)

Anyway, to punish me, Kate puked all over me in the Safeway parking lot later that day. To such an extent that I drove home in my bra.

Good times.

And, undeterred, I actually tried AGAIN the next year. And lo! I got a really cute pic of Kate. And the rental mall Santa even had all his teeth!

But the year after that she lost her Santa shit again. So last year I finally decided to do what mothers are supposed to—protect their kids from un-due trauma. I laid to rest my dream of a piano lined with darling Santa pics through the years.

In fact, we don’t even own a piano. So that makes it easier too.

I mean, I can’t be the only Mama who wrangles with an irrational desire to do up Christmas in all its perfection, can I? Even when it means traumatizing my children, their teachers, and my photographer friends?

How many of you are planning to drag your unwilling kids by their ears to sit on Santa’s lap? It appears some other Mamas are discussing this on Motherboard. (God bless the Internets for always proving you’re not alone.)

I may have cut corners on our tree selection process and visits to Santa. But my Christmas spirit is unwavering. I have every intention of keeping in close contact with that jolly old soul.

And to make sure that happens, I’ve added Old Saint Nick to my Christmas card list.


Hit the Road, Angel of Death

Posted: November 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Doctors, Earthquakes, Extended Family, Friends and Strangers, Kindergarten, Little Rhody, Milestones, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Parenting, Preschool, Scary Stuff, Sisters | No Comments »

When I left Paigey’s preschool one morning a couple weeks ago, I noticed a klatch of women—other Mamas from the school—standing on the lawn. They were dabbing at the corners of their eyes with Kleenex.

It was clear something happened to someone at the school. And somehow I knew it was about a pregnancy.

In the crosswalk I caught up with a woman I knew. A mother of one of Paigey’s classmates. Tugging at her elbow, I implored without greeting her, “Okay, so what happened?”

And damn damn damn my intuition. I was right. A mom from the school whose due date was that very day, had a kicking healthy baby just the day before. But when she went to the hospital that morning, she found out that her baby had died.

So sickeningly sad. Someone said later it was strangled by its own umbilical chord. What brutal live-giveth-and-taketh-away irony.

“Oh God, oh God,” I said, wrapping my arms around my stomach on the sidewalk. “Do you know her name?” Because, as it turned out, I know a pregnant woman—someone I’ve worked with and like a great deal—whose son goes to the preschool. From her Facebook posts, I was pretty sure her due date was that day.

It turned out it was NOT my friend. That in that tiny school there were actually two women with the same due date. And although it didn’t diminish the tragedy of the whole thing, I still felt like I’d dodged a kind of bullet. If only by association.

Do you ever go through phases where your computer monitor fizzles and goes black, your car’s transmission gives out, and you drop your cell phone in the toilet? All in the same week? It’s as if there’s some mechanical technological curse on you. If you touch it, it will cease to function—invariably days after its warranty expired.

I feel like I’m currently in that mode, but with people.

Not long ago my sweet Uncle Adolph (no relation to the Nazi) passed away. It was his time. I mean, he was very old, and had been wrangling with Alzheimer’s. But those things make it no easier to grapple with the fact that someone who you knew is suddenly just not here any more.

Uncle Adolph was married to one of my mom’s favorite sisters, Scottie. I think her real name was Sophie, but I never once heard her called that. The two of them were known as “Scottie and Ade.” How much does that rock?

They lived in a small house on a big piece of land on the outskirts of mom’s home town. And what I remember of him is this: Uncle Adolph had a huge garden. In his day job, he was something else. A custodian of some sort, I think. But in his heart, he was a gardener.

We’d pick things from his garden in the evenings, right before dinnertime. He called cucumbers ‘cukes’ which was weird and cool to me. He didn’t talk much, but he’d wipe dirt off a big yellow squash or an eggplant or a strawberry and say, “Now THAT’S a good one,” then hand it to me.

We lived two hours away, so I didn’t see him often or know him very well. But it always felt special being welcomed as an insider into his garden world.

In fact, whenever I conjure a vegetable garden in my mind’s eye I see Uncle Adolph’s garden. I think of him most of the time I’m chopping up cukes too.

Early last week I got a sister-wide email. The four of us mass communicate this way sometimes. But the contents of this one were a bummer. Dad’s long-time neighbor and best friend Eddie had died. A man in his mid-80s, who you’d have sworn wasn’t a day over 65.

Dad and Eddie did projects. Built birdhouses, step-stools for grandchildren, and did all the standard house maintenance stuff. Eddie had a few years on my father, but was vivacious as all get out, and handy as hell. Dad would ask Eddie to help him do something like bring the AC units from the garage to the upstairs bedrooms. And I can’t say this for sure, but I picture Dad acting in more of a ‘supervisory’ role, while Eddie did the actual (and proverbial) heavy lifting. It wouldn’t be weird to see Eddie dangling from a tree in dad’s yard, sawing off a rotting branch.

Regardless of who did what, or whose tools they used, there was no score-keeping between those two. They were a good team.

Eddie’s wife passed away a couple months ago. He was understandably sad, but hanging in. Back to his projects and puttering, and eating occasional dinners at Dad’s. But then, per my sister’s email, the lights were on in the house when they shouldn’t have been, or something like that, which made Dad concerned. Especially when Eddie didn’t answer the phone.

So Dad let himself in with his key, and found his dear friend sitting slumped over the dinner table. Quietly, suddenly, gone.

Eddie will be sorely missed.

I spent a long time hiding death from Kate. Even if I was doing something like throwing away brown neglected house plants, if she asked me why I was doing it I’d avoid saying they “died.” Silly, I know, but I feared the domino effect of her busy mind. If a plant could die, then couldn’t a person? And if a person could die, then didn’t that mean me or her Dad—or other people she loves—could? Or even her?

I felt utterly unequipped to navigate those conversations. I hate thinking about all that stuff myself. So why not extend her innocence for as long as possible?

Around that time I came across an old book of mine that Kate nearly-instantly love love loved. Oh, and me too. It’s called Koko’s Kitten, and it’s about that gorilla, Koko, who learned to communicate using sign language. And if that wasn’t cute enough, she also became friends with a kitten.

Big tough gorilla. Wee wittle kitten. Lots of pictures of them snuggling. Name one thing better.

I read the book dozens of times to Kate, always avoiding the part where the kitty cat, All Ball, gets killed. Yes, this amazing story of cross-species friendship takes a sudden tragic turn when All Ball gets offed by a car. A brutal plot twist even for us grown-ups. Thankfully, with a pre-literate toddler it’s fairly easy to bluff your way through the sad parts.

I guess one of the reasons I hid death from Kate for so long has to do with my own childhood experience of coming to understand death. I remember it so clearly. I was in the car with my mom, driving by Almacs grocery store, and I suddenly pieced together the fact that “old people die” and my grandmother (Mom’s mom) was old.

I was sobbing. Struck with panic over the unfairness of it. Heartbroken by the thought of Bopchi being gone.

My mother, ever the realist, responded to my fearful questions by saying something like, “Well, yes, she probably will die soon.”

Note: This did not make me feel better.

This is why, after the devastation in Haiti, when Kate nervously asked if we have earthquakes in San Francisco, I paused for a beat then said, “Noooooooo. Earthquakes HERE? Never happen.”

But Kate’s a world-weary kindergartener now. Today’s five-year-olds seem like the third-graders of my youth. Which is to say, she’s hip to death. Our friends’ pets have died. Kate knows my mom died before she was born. And, thanks to my NPR habit, she’s heard on the car radio about soldiers, bomb victims, and others dying. (Try as I do, turning down the volume after something unsavory is broadcast never seems to work.)

Sometimes weighty news like the death of her great grandpa barely registers with Kate. I’ve actually wanted her to feel sadder. (Guess I’ve come a long from the days of throwing out house plants that “weren’t happy anymore.”) Then Kate surprises me by sobbing on her bed and drawing ‘I Miss You’ cards for a neighborhood cat we barely knew.

It must be her way of regulating only what she can manage to process. I should have trusted Nature to have built into her something that helps her do that.

As for me, the day of the sad drop-off at Paige’s school I saw my still-prego friend Margot at afternoon pick-up. I was so thrilled, so very relieved to see her in her healthy baby-filled state, I nearly took a running leap to straddle her belly in a full-body hug.

But I was even happier to hear that nearly two weeks after she was scheduled to make her appearance, her cute-as-the-dickens long-lashed baby girl was born. Hooray! Mother and baby are all aglow and love-drenched and healthy (if not a bit frustrated by all the waiting).

Take that, Angel of Death.

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Honk If You Have a Bully

Posted: November 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Firsts, Husbandry, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Manners, Misc Neuroses, Miss Kate, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Preschool, Sisters, Travel | 7 Comments »

Do they make “My kid’s a bully at Greenwood Elementary School!” bumper stickers? I’m guessing not.

It’s hardly the kind of thing you want to publicize. But if more people ‘fessed up about their kids’ unkind-to-others behavior, those of us who are wrangling with this unsavory stuff would feel so much less alone. Less freakish. Less sympathetic to people like, say, Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom.

I actually read a poll in a Motherboard newsletter about bullying. 71% of mothers said their kid had been bullied, but even more moms said their kid had never BEEN a bully. So who’s doing all that bullying then?

Well, now I know: It’s my daughter Kate.

Okay, so maybe it’s a bit soon to hang the bully mantel on her. But in my most neurotic Mama heart I just want to brace for the worst case scenario.

I was on a plane to New York. Yes, New Yawk Cit-ay! Blissfully alone. No diapers to change in a cramped cabin bathroom. No restless children to pacify with a constant stream of new toys and snacks. No dual car seats, immense roller bag, double stroller, and two overtired children to maneuver through endless airport hallways.

In other words, by virtue of simply being airborne alone–People magazine and novel in hand, and free to nap at will–I was already deep into my vacation.

But it was too good to be true. Because when the plane landed and I texted Mark to report my safe arrival, seconds later my phone rang. It was him, calling from home in the middle of the day.

“What’re you doing at home?” I asked nervously. This couldn’t be good.

“Well, I got a call from the school that I had to come pick Kate up. That she’d hit some other kids.”


My feel-good glow turned instantly to a churning stomachache.

“I considered not telling you ’til after the weekend,” he went on. (This getaway was my treat for being the On Duty parent when Mark traveled to exotic ports for work this summer.) “But I didn’t know who else I should tell about it. And I had to talk to someone.”

Why, I wondered, hadn’t he enlisted the ear of an imaginary friend?

Kate’s hitting episode that day was actually her third strike. She’d poked someone, pulled another kid’s hair, and did some other swatting or shoving, and right on the heels of her visit to the principal’s office. Oy.

And so, poor Mark got a call during a meeting with his two bosses (of course). He muttered apologies for his sudden need dash out the door because his five-year-old got kicked out of kindergarten for the day.

Good times.

As I yanked my bag from the overhead compartment and walked off the plane, my cell phone wedged between my ear and shoulder, I outlined my anxieties to Mark.

“So what if this is the first glimpse we’re getting of Kate developing into a sociopathic adult?” I panted. “I mean, you haven’t noticed that she’s been killing squirrels in the back yard with sticks or anything, have you?”

My mind raced. “But really—oh God—what if her teachers don’t like her now?” The one thing worse than being a serial killer in my mind? Being UNLIKED. This thought made me stop to lean against the wall en route to Baggage Claim. “Oh shit. What if she’s turned into the problem child they don’t want to deal with? Did it seem that way when you talked to them?”

Mark started talking me down off an emotional ledge—likely regretting at that point that I was the person he chose to share this news with. He tossed out some theories. Kate’s been super tired after school. The day at kindergarten day is longer and requires more focus than her short playful stints in preschool. Maybe that’s catching up with her? Making her grumpy and irrational? Also Paigey has been prone to hitting lately—a more age-appropriate behavior for a two-year-old, no doubt. But maybe Kate is somehow passing that forward?

This got me thinking. My sister Ellen tied a nun to a tree with a jump rope when she was in Catholic school. Hell, we LOVE that story in my family. And I’m sure that got her kicked out of school for the day. Maybe even a week! And dare I admit to my own behavior in Miss Hancock’s classroom? Bonnie Usher grabbed an eraser I wanted so I leaned over and bit her arm. (She was clearly askin’ for it.)

I mean, these kinds of things are garden variety childhood offenses, right? Ellen and I have never been incarcerated. I’d even go so far as to say we’re both highly-functioning members of society.

But by the time I was in the cab watching a gray day in Queens whiz past the window, my attempt at sweeping The Hitting under the carpet turned on me. And I did what nearly every mother tends to do: wracked my brain for what it was that I’D done to bring this all about.

It didn’t take long to decide that Kate’s playground furor was due to the very trip I was on. Brought about by my selfishness for wanting to be away alone for three nights. Plus, it was just days after another overnight trip I’d taken for work.

It was my fault entirely.

It’s been two weeks now since this all went down. And I can happily report that Kate has made no additional assaults on her peers. A feat that, after her first day back in school after The Incident, she felt was worthy of a gift.

“I didn’t hit anyone today!” she cheerfully reported as she climbed into the car. “So can you get me that ice cream maker toy that I saw on TV?”

Uh, you don’t get a prize for *not* whacking your friends upside the head, kiddo. Puh-leez.

Now most mortal Mamas would just let this go now, right? Turn their attention to other anxieties. But Kate’s parent-teacher conference rolled around a week or so later. Even though it was packed with praise for things like being “a promising mathematician” (Mark’s genes), a precocious communicator, and an all-around smart gal, I found I was clinging to the Hitting. So in the course of our chat with the teacher, I somehow resuscitated a long-dormant anxiety I thought—or hoped—I’d put to rest.

Did we send Kate to Kindergarten too soon?

Everyone is holding kids—sure, mostly boys—back these days. Six-year-olds are as common in kindergartens as lice. Not to mention five-year-olds. Which makes Miss Kate, who started the year off at age four, a wee one in her class.

In terms of book learnin’ the girl’s ready to roll. But is she out of her league in terms of emotional development and social composure?

I flip-flopped wildly on this issue last year. Each time lecturing Mark on the merits of what I was sure was my final decision. Another year of preschool will buy us more time with her before she’s off to college. It’s settled! But then her interest in writing and reading would make me certain that more preschool would bore her. A day later a friend would extol the merits of Pre-K programs and I’d be on the phone with the preschool begging for her spot back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Ultimately the three schools that assessed her all thought she was ready. So we pulled the trigger.

During Kate’s conference I started speculating madly on this issue. (I’d forgotten how good I was at it.) I wanted her teacher to pat my hand and assure me we made the right decision. And in subtle ways she kinda did—saying Kate is intellectually in line with her classmates, and behavioral issues like hitting can crop up in the first six weeks of school. But she didn’t take me by the shoulders and scream this into my face, which was apparently required to really convince me.

So on the drive home Mark—bless his heart—tried talking me off the ledge again. He’s long felt confident that Kate was ready for kindergarten. And even though The Hitting Thing rocked his world too, the fact that it was now ricocheting in my mind to other places, seemed to fortify his hunch that it would all be okay.

After reading Halloween books to a sweet sleepy Kate that night, I looked at her as I closed her door and had a Mama moment. I couldn’t imagine her being any more perfect. I crawled into my own bed and wondered what I’d think if we had held her back, but she still did something like hit another kid. What excuses would we have then? What could I beat myself up about then?

Maybe that champion spouse of mine was right. Once I dove past that thick outer layer of self-doubt and frenzied Mama worry, I found that I arrived at a more peaceful place. There I let all the dramatic self-flagellation slip away, took a cleansing breath, and had a clear calm thought that sometimes these things just happen. And in kindergarten, along with learning to read and to count to ten in Spanish, Kate’ll also learn how to control her emotions, and how to be a better friend.

She will survive Kindergarten. She’ll move past The Hitting until it’s some little incident we—and hopefully her teachers—barely remember. And, God willing, she won’t chop people up as an adult and store their body parts in chest freezers.

At least, I really really hope not.