you better watch out

The Christmas decorations came out of the basement yesterday, and wham! my kids threw it into high gear.  They love playing with the Christmas stuff so much I sometimes consider just keeping it out all year, although I do think it’s the limited-time-only appearance of the “Little People Christmas Parade” that makes it so appealing in the first place.  It’s sort of like the Shamrock Shake, which McDonald’s only sells a few weeks a year with what The Week calls “calculated enigma.”  That may be a new parenting strategy for me: calculated enigma. I’ll keep you posted.

Anyway, I LOVE Christmas myself, so I can only blame myself for the kids’ frenzied anticipation. It’s not even December for another two days, and I have three Ed Grimleys jumping on the furniture. 


Connor and Maggie are what my husband calls “sprinters,” meaning they will use up all this frantic energy by the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and be exhausted and cranky by the time Christmas morning actually arrives. Seamus is more measured with his energy, but even he was running to the bus stop this morning singing at the top of his lungs, improvising a ribald, unholy version of his favorite Christmas carol:


His older brother was slightly shocked. “You shouldn’t say that!” he demurred. “Santa could be listening.”

“Mm-hmm,” Maggie said, arranging her thumbs in her mittens. “Dat’s naughty, and naughty means kids who get NOTHING.”

Connor, on the other hand, is trying extra hard to be “holy,” which I guess is from all the CCD classes he’s been taking. I think he’s hoping that “holy” puts you on some sort of Super-Nice List. Sometimes his efforts backfire, though. 

Case in point: he and Seamus were arranging the Fisher-Price Nativity Set, Christmas Parade, and Christmas Village into one uber-arrangement.  

SEAMUS: This is the Christmas float. And Santa’s going to be on it.

CONNOR: No! Not Santa!

SEAMUS: Why not?

Connor gave his younger brother a most patient, pious stare. He could almost feel his halo sprouting atop his head.

CONNOR: Because Baby Jesus is the most important part of Christmas. Baby Jesus is why there IS Christmas. So Baby Jesus gets to ride on top of the float on the Christmas parade.

That’s my boy! The real meaning of Christmas: the Macy’s Newborns-at-Dangerous-Heights Christmas Parade! Mary would be so proud. 

let playing kids play (even when Mom really wants to leave)

My family is on vacation this week in Florida, where it is at least much warmer than New York City, if not exactly tropically balmy. My kids and the other tourists here are having a ball swimming in the resort pool, and you can just tell the locals think we’re all nuts. It’s November, their wide eyes say, walking by on their way from one indoor location to another. It’s only seventy-three degrees. For heaven’s sake, put a sweater on.

I took the three kids to the beach this afternoon, and when I say we had the place to ourselves, I am not exaggerating. We were the only people I could see in either direction. Maybe it was the red “no swimming flags,” or maybe it was the quite brisk winds, who can say? After about sixty seconds on the beach, I could see that the rest of Florida had the right idea, and we should go home: it was freezing down there. But it is always at those moments when a mother is ready to leave a place that her children are suddenly totally and happily occupied. The more you want to leave, the more your kids seem like they could stay forever.

Had it been a warm and gentle breeze blowing, and had I had a good book with me, the kids wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes. But there I was, wrapped in a wet towel to keep myself warm, with nothing to do but watch my children have the time of their lives. It was an exceedingly rare occasion: all three of them were happily playing the exact same thing. Starbucks.

“This Starbucks really windy!” Maggie announced, lugging a pail full of wet sand that must have weighed as much as she did. She handled the “mucky sand” part, her eight-year-old brother handled the trips down to the water, and her six-year-old brother ran up and down the low-tide beach collecting seaweed and bits of foam. They put all these together into some beverage cups I had scrounged up (having only one pail), and asked me what I wanted to order. “A gingerbread spice extra-hot no-whip skinny latte,” I’d say, or some such thing, and the three of them would fall to their baristing with such concentration I could only marvel. Really? My second grader playing “pretend kitchen” with my preschooler? But it was happening, and despite the high winds, we stayed for over an hour, me ordering one exotic beverage after another.

For the first twenty minutes or so, I fought it, fidgeting, wishing I had my book with me, asking them if they weren’t cold. Then I saw the gift with which I was being presented. The three of them were getting along like they were Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters, sharing one corncob doll and declaring it the best Christmas ever. My kids were not fighting. My kids were ENJOYING each other’s company. My kids were using their imaginations. My eight-year-old was embracing being a little kid, for just a little while longer.

We were chased off the beach by angry approaching storm clouds. That and the sand starting to blow into our eyes. And all of us were sorry to leave. I forced myself to stay, seeing that my kids saw something in that empty beach that I didn’t; and it gave me a moment with my kids I hope I never forget.

this is the dawning of the age of Club Penguin

Last night. I’m in kitchen making dinner.

CONNOR: Mom, what’s your email?

I figured he needed it for some school form. I gave it to him. A few minutes of silence.

CONNOR: Mom, how do you check your email?

I walk out of the kitchen and find my seven-year-old typing at my laptop, surfing the net. Not something I was aware he knew how to do. 

ME: What do you need my email for?
CONNOR: (like this is the most obvious thing in the world) MOM. Club PENGUIN.

I have not looked forward to this day. Until recently, I could say with a straight face that my children spent exactly zero hours per week on the internet– or on my laptop, for that matter. But second grade has brought “technology” class once a week, and computer skills have been taught, and if you’re a computer-savvy second grader, you’re going to be racking up the puffles on Club Penguin.

Here’s what I hate about the internet. I don’t want to spend the half hour that my child is happily occupied sitting there WITH him, monitoring the other penguins for any creepy behavior. Screen time is only useful to a parent because when our kids are mesmerized by a screen, WE CAN DO SOMETHING ELSE.

But I’m not going to leave a 7-year-old to navigate the internet ALONE, I thought. What kind of mother would do that? So I sat there and watched Connor watching 50 or so penguins clumped together on an iceberg. Every five seconds or so, one of the penguins moves an inch or so. Maybe one has a hat on. That’s about it. After sixty seconds I was so bored I wanted to scream. I went back to the kitchen and used my free time to scarf some nearly-forgotten Halloween candy.

I was a little bit guilt-stricken about walking away, so I spent my own “screen time” investigating. But no matter how many variants of “dangers of Club Penguin” I typed into Google, the consensus seemed to be that Club Penguin is pretty harmless- even says so, and they would seem (by their name) to be rather pro-student and educational content. Still, it does seem like a huge waste of a half hour. Connor has readily forsworn his TV time for Club Penguin, but at least Phineas and Ferb was teaching my son inerrant comic timing. 

And I did notice that Connor was really cranky for a few minutes after I turned it off this morning before school, like he was still in the land of flightless seabirds and not ready to return. What if he loses grip on reality and gets lost in Club Penguin land forever, like Tom Hanks in the 1982 cult classic Mazes & Monsters

(I mean, I know you’ve all seen it several times, but just to remind you, in this made-for-TV movie Tom Hanks plays way too much thinly-veiled Dungeons and Dragons,  and then he starts hallucinating and his Game Master starts making him do stuff, and he hides in a sewer because he thinks maybe he killed somebody. It’s bone-chilling stuff.)

And that was over a board game. My son’s trying to resist penguins that waddle around onscreen, and change color, and have thought bubbles. It’s hopeless.  

I wish Connor didn’t find Club Penguin so fascinating at the moment, but since it does seem to reach eyeball-searing levels of boredom, I’m hoping the novelty wears off. 

This morning, Connor interrupted me in the shower to ask if he could become a “member” of Club Penguin. “It’s only $57.95 for a whole year!” he said, beaming like a used-car salesman. Hells to the no. Every mother has got to draw the line somewhere. 

Do your kids play Club Penguin, or Webkins, or other online games? Or do they maybe O.D. on “Angry Birds” on your iPhone? Do you care? Do you set limits? Is there any way to close Pandora’s box once it has been opened?

there is such a thing as too much free time

Seriously, there is. 

I just came back from performing Mother Load at three cities on the other side of the country. I left for the airport Thursday morning, as soon as the kids got out the door to school with my husband. I gave him a good-luck kiss and a typed list of everything he needed to remember for the kids between that moment and Monday morning: staggered pickups, playdates, dress up days, dress down days, two different library days, household object starting with letter-of-week day, gym bag day, and– most crucially– show and tell day at preschool. And then, for the first time in weeks, I was alone.

Many people dread a cross-country flight, but an unaccompanied mother is not one of those people. I watched a movie, I wrote ten thank you notes, I read until I was bored, I had Doritos snack mix (because calories consumed in mid-air never count). I spoke to no one for hours except to say “Coke Zero, please” to the flight attendant. I was in heaven.

By the time I landed, rented a car, and drove an hour and a half to the designated Courtyard Inn, I was a little antsy for human communication. I called the house. “They’re fine,” my babysitter said. “Anyone want to talk to Mommy?” 

No takers.

This was good. If they got on the phone they’d probably start crying, seeing how they must desperately miss me by now. Right?

I was up by 5 am the next morning, since it was 8 am on the East Coast– sleeping all day, in my usual life. I worked out in the teeny gym, I got coffee in the lobby, I blow dried my hair, and it was still dark outside.

I called the stage manager. Waking her. “We’re starting tech at 12,” she said. “But we’ll be focusing lights till about 4 pm. I’ll call you around then to let you know when we need you.”

It was 8 am. I was not needed until 4 pm. I should have been doing handsprings. Instead, I was slightly panicked. What was I going to do all day? I could write, but I was too nervous about the show that night to focus. I could… walk around the hotel parking lot, and down the highway to the In n Out Burger. I could check my email again. 

You may be reading this and wanting to throw something at me. What any mother wouldn’t give for a day without obligations! This is true- but when you are stranded, carless, aside an interstate, and when you have not brought those seven years of photographs to put into albums with you, you too might be a little bit at a loss as to what to do with your time.

The show went great that night, but by Saturday morning at 9 am, I was dropped off at a new hotel in a new city. “We’ll be back for you around 3,” the stage manager said.  I ate peanut M&M’s, I watched a Harry Potter movie on HBO, I called my husband, who said the kids were fine and didn’t want to talk. 

By Sunday morning, sitting on a park bench in the glorious sunshine while the crew focused lights at the third venue, I was a little bit out of my mind. After the matinee, we had six hours to kill until our red-eye home. We went to the mall. I tried hard not to cry at how much I wanted to be home already.

I was out of JFK airport at 6:30 am, raccoon-eyed and greasy, willing my taxi to go faster. At 7:30 am, I walked in my apartment and was toppled over by my deliriously happy children, who all talked at once non-stop until I had delivered each of them to their classrooms.

I staggered home. I only had about an hour to sleep before I had to pick Maggie up. I set my alarm, delighted to be busy, thrilled to have so much to do, humbled at the privilege it is to be a mom. It might be exhausting, frustrating, enervating work at times. But now I can say with satisfaction: when I am my children’s mother, I am never, ever at a loss for something to do. 

PS: My husband did pretty amazingly well, except for forgetting the letter of the week object, and neglecting to open Seamus’s backpack and find the “IMPORTANT!” note stating that class picture day was Monday. I’m glad he didn’t get it all perfectly right, though- that means that maybe I was missed after all. 

reporting from San Francisco, land of the unhappy meal

This week, I’m performing Mother Load in three northern CA cities, and I hope you’ve already told your friends in Vacaville, San Ramon, and Campbell, cause it’s going down tonight. I had a lovely child-free drive up from San Francisco yesterday afternoon, and the lovely landscape was only slightly marred by the news being broadcast across the radio that San Francisco was about to enact a ban on all Happy Meal toys.

Turns out that news was premature: apparently the mayor has vowed this morning to veto the ban, which some will say is because he’s in the pocket of old McDonald, but I say is because he has an ounce of sense in his head.

Seriously, I think this is one of the sillier things I’ve ever heard. Do toys in Happy Meals make kids want them? Hell, yes. But it’s not like the Happy Meal is the only unhealthy choice at McDonald’s. If kids don’t get a cheeseburger and fries with a toy, their option will be… to get a cheeseburger and fries without a toy. Who is this helping? How is this helping kids make healthier food choices?

I am going to make a bold statement here: out of the 150,000 playthings in our house, perhaps the most popular is a tiny “Guitar Hero” speaker that came in a Happy Meal many moons ago. For a time, it has been each of my children’s most prized possession. Maggie has been walking around with it lately, held to her ear like a ghetto blaster, and swiveling her hips madly to its tinny beat. Seamus thinks his aunt could save a lot of money on her wedding next fall: if we just bring the Guitar Hero radio with us, why, there’ll be no need for a band or DJ.

I love Happy Meals. They make my children inordinately happy. And the toy is the best part. I don’t take them every day, or every week, or every month- but I’m glad the Happy Meal is out there. Get the milk instead of the juice box, and the apple dippers instead of the fries, and toss the caramel dipping sauce, and I honestly don’t think it’s that bad. And I want that to be MY decision to make. If you want to be a killjoy, fine, but let my kid have his cheaply-made Shrek “Puss in Boots” with poseable arm and meowing action, if you don’t mind.

How about you? Do Happy Meals make you happy? Would you be in favor of a fast-food toy ban in your community?