why the ban on Buckyballs is a good one

I’m usually on the side of personal responsibility when it comes to consumer products. If you don’t want your kid to have a broken ankle, then don’t buy the backyard trampoline.

But when the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced last week that they were seeking an order to cease production of  Buckyballs, I must say I did a little cheer.

As some of you know, my seven-year-old son had his own Buckyball-related medical complication just last month after he stuck one in his ear. This was a way to harm himself so original that the Buckyballs website hadn’t even thought of it (aren’t I proud). Amidst their warnings that Buckyballs were to be kept away from all children, lest they ingest them through nose or mouth, the ear was left out of it.

But visiting their website was the first inkling I had that Buckyballs weren’t for children. And once I started my research, I was horrified to discover that there have been dozens of serious injuries to children caused by Buckyballs, many requiring surgery.  One toddler swallowed thirty-seven Buckyballs and is recovering from the operations required to repair the three holes they ripped in her intestines. That’s why the AAP  immediately announced their support of the ban on Buckyballs last week as soon it was announced. They’re not run-of-the-mill choking hazards; they can be  mess-your-kid-up-for-life dangerous.

Lest ye judge the parent who left 37 magnets around for her toddler to swallow:  those magnets were purchased at a toy store. So were the ones that my son lodged in his ear. Until last week, at least, Buckyballs were sold in every toy store I visited- usually right up near the cash register where they were impossible to miss. Every parent I have told about Seamus’s inner ear adventure says, “Oh, we have those!” Not one of those parents were aware that they were a “desktoy,” and that that word (made up, by the way) indicated that they were wildly inappropriate for their children.

And that’s why I’m so annoyed at Maxfield and Oberton, the NYC-based company that manufactures Buckyballs, for their self-centered and petulant response to the CPSC ruling:

It’s completely disingenous to say they are only marketed to adults and “occasionally” make their way into the hands of children. Out of 2.5 million sets they’re sold in the US since 2009, what percentage do you think were sold in toy stores? I’m guessing 75%. Are we to believe that Maxfield and Oberton didn’t know who those stores would sell them to? Now that Buckyballs have been sold in toy stores for years, I’m not sure the genie can be put back in the bottle. They’re sold as children’s playthings, they’re perceived as children’s playthings, and Maxfield and Oberton made tons of money on that perception while knowing that the list of children injured by their product was growing.

But in typical modern fashion, instead of owning the problem and making it right, the makers of Buckyballs are trying to make this about their trampled freedoms and hurt feelings. “How can this happen in America?” CEO Craig Zucker whined to CBS News.  Are you kidding me? Your product has seriously injured 22 children. It’s a free country: make something that isn’t dangerous. Make your addictive magnets too big to be swallowed. The “administrative complaint” the CPSC  has slapped on you is a rare step, one taken only after your company refused to cooperate with a voluntary recall plan.

To my fellow parents, I say: The CPSC isn’t trying to take away your freedom to distract yourself during your conference calls. If you’re jonesing for something magnetic, try the Ball of Whacks, which won’t put your loved ones in serious danger. Let’s show Maxfield and Oberton how to behave like grownups.

RIP, Encyclopedia Brown

The author Donald J. Sobol died last week at 87, and with him one of the all-time most-loved fictional characters: the original bad, bad Leroy Brown, better known as Encyclopedia.

The first book of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries came out in 1963, and in the 49 years since, the series has never gone out of print.

The news of Sobol’s death prompted me to pull my kids’ own Encyclopedia Brown collection off the bookshelf. Over the last few nights I’ve been reading them a few mysteries a night, watching them chew their lips with deep concentration as they attempt to solve the Case of the Lace Doily.  I love that my kids love these books as much as I once did. I love their enchantment with Idaville, a erstwhile utopia of marbles and checkers and butterscotch pudding and washing the back of your neck before dinner (named after Sobol’s mother, by the way). I love the enpowerment they feel hearing about a 10-year-old keeping bad guys at bay– even if the bad guys aren’t all THAT bad. Bugs Meany (could Sobol name a character, or what?) is the lord of misrule in Idaville, and you can tell because wears that weird crowny Jughead hat.


Apparently that’s a man’s fedora cut in a zigzag shape and turned up? (thanks Wikipedia) and by the 1950s it was already not exactly cutting edge, but it did allow one to self-identify as a rascal. Anyway, Bugs Meany wears that sort of hat and runs a gang called the Tigers, but fear not: three or four pages is all Encyclopedia ever needs to send those Tigers back to their clubhouse, stripped of the marbles they purloined, grumbling at how they’ve been foiled again.

This is not to say that there is not a sinister undercurrent in the stories of Encyclopedia Brown for the adult reader. Should you choose to read some of the earlier books in the series, say the ones from 1966, I thought I’d warn you about a few of the more, shall we say, dated details that await you:

  • an apron-clad mother scolding a father for getting home late for dinner at 6 pm (corned beef and cabbage)
  • Nevin, a “gentle boy of twelve who wanted to be a florist when he grew up.”
  • Miguel, whose father “tosses Spanish omelets at the cafeteria”
  • this same Miguel throwing a mock bullfight in his backyard in which his dog plays the part of a bull, with KNIVES TAPED TO HIS HEAD
  • “Indian trials” to find the bravest boy in Idaville (water boiling, tent pitching, drinking something disgusting) (and by the way, no girls allowed)
  • Roscoe Kerr, a young man who smokes dried coffee grounds and has to hire Encyclopedia to help him find the blackmailer threatening to tell his mother. (Seriously, is this a thing one can do?)
  • Said Roscoe’s friend Harry “smokes a pipe with real tobacco anywhere he likes” after his mother GAVE HIM THE PIPE for his seventeenth birthday.
  • Chester, a boy sure to win a pie-eating contest, for he was so fat that “only the hippopotamus at the zoo could eat more.”
  • feeding an unfriendly dog a handful of “chocolate drops” (Hershey’s Kisses? Sno-Caps?) to keep him quiet.
This is where my seven-year-old son drew the line. “Chocolate for dogs is DANGEROUS,” Seamus pointed out. “Encylopedia should KNOW that.” I took this opportunity to discuss how there were a lot of things in this particular book that people might not say or think or do fifty years later. Still, there was something so charming about it all, wasn’t there?
The next story was about a sunglass-wearing, kiss-throwing movie star who said “darling” a lot and who was caught red-handed staging a grand theft. The moral?

“Actors aren’t like other people,” said Chief Brown. ‘They don’t care about what is right or wrong as long as they get attention.”

OK, that is where I draw the line, Chief Brown. You take that back right now. Just @ me on Twitter.

Have you ever come across some unexpectedly dated ideas in your children’s books?


Furby is back! (Nooooooo!)

This morning I got this cheery PR pitch in my email inbox:

and I was at that moment very glad that my four-year-old daughter was not looking over my shoulder; if she had been, her bloodcurdling scream would most likely have punctured my eardrum.

Every child has that one thing of which they are irrationally and totally terrified. Growing up, my little brother was so afraid of Don Music from Sesame Street that he’d have to hide behind the couch whenever he saw Kermit the Frog come out in his trench coat.

My brother couldn’t sleep at night for visions of Don Music banging his head on the piano.

My oldest child, Connor, had twin demons which haunted him as a wee lad:

…the “Ababa No-Man,” aka “Bumble,” from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

…and the Grumpy Old Troll from Dora the Explorer, an incubus so terrifying that 3-year-old Connor could never watch Dora at all, lest the Troll suddenly appear and demand viewers solve one of his cranky riddles.

For four-year-old Maggie, the terrifying summation of every evil her subconscious has yet to process is the Furby– an old-school Furby which I received in 1998 as a Christmas present from the lovely and generous Rhea Perlman.

I was doing a play with Rhea in December 1998, and that year, the Furby Madness was at its peak. She procured one for each of her six fellow cast members, at what I’m sure was an outrageous black-market price. Once the play was over, along with my Furby fascination, I stuck it in a cabinet– until Seamus’s 5th birthday, almost three years ago. Seamus was deep into his stuffed animal phase at the time, and when I came across my dusty Furby I changed its batteries, discovered with delight that it worked just fine, and presented it on Seamus’s birthday, certain he would love it.

He did. His 18-month-old sister did not.

“WEE HOW!” the Furby yelled, eyes alight. “FAA DEE POH!”  Maggie started to scream, right there with the presents and the birthday cake, and would not be comforted until the Furby was taken far, far out of sight. As in, stuffed in a shopping bag and stuck on a shelf.

That day almost three years ago should have been the end of Maggie’s Furby Terror, save for one important factor:

The Furby has no off switch.

I’m not talking about the all-new Furby; I cannot speak to its magic. But the old-school Furby has no off switch, cause see, it’s not a toy! It’s real! 

And so the only way to get it to stop chattering is to cover its eyes until it sings a lullaby to itself and begins to snore. Then you quickly stick it in a cabinet or something, somewhere nice and dark. This works very well until someone opens said cabinet, and Furby jerks his eyes open with a sixty-decibel “HEE! HIIII! LIIIIKKKE!”

Maggie: scream. run from room.

Seamus: Oh yeah! My Furby! I love him!

Repeat ad nauseam.

Maggie has actually gotten more terrified of Furby with each passing year. It got so bad this summer that she couldn’t enter any room unaccompanied lest Furby bellow her a sudden and cheery “LOBA! TOOKY!” “It’s his voice, Mommy,” she tells me, visibly shaking, when I point out for the umpteenth time that the Furby is immobile. “His squeaky voice.”

And so Maggie and I made a secret plan: we put Furby in a cardboard box. We taped it shut (she watched, I did the dirty work). I hid Furby in a seldom-used closet. “If Seamus doesn’t ask for Furby in the next two weeks,” I told her, “Furby will go in the garbage. And we won’t tell. And we will never, ever, ever see Furby again.” She nodded, eyes teary, biting her lip.

Those two weeks are nearly up. Now, today, news that FURBY is BACK. This time, its eyes (see above) are pixilated and truly weird-looking. This time, it has FEET that MOVE (just from side to side, but still). And he’s just as perky as ever: “Furby’s really hyper,” one child explains warily, on their promotional video. This time, Furby has a PR firm. He’ll be everywhere. He’ll be unstoppable.

Here’s hoping he has an off switch this time.

What is/was your child irrationally and completely afraid of?


leaning into my ease (easier said than done)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying out the online version of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” program. Despite my slight addiction to social media, I prefer the offline versions of many things: my datebook, my reading material, and my morning pages. So I’ll be sticking with my dog-eared copies of Cameron’s books, pen, and paper, rather than continuing with  The Artist’s Way Toolkit , but I’m so glad I was given this nudge to honor my creative self. As a mother it is all too easy to put such things last.

I believe it was Alice Walker who said that we mothers talk about doing their writing in dribs and drabs, only after the laundry is done– and that perhaps we shouldn’t be so proud of that. (If anyone has that quote let me know!) I’m paraphrasing, unfortunately, but her point was that we could (and should) instead take pride in putting the housework last and what inspires us first. That’s easier said than done, especially when you’re in the crazy salt-mine years of three kids under five. But that changes. This morning I put my three kids on a bus to day camp, and had seven glorious hours laid out in front of me to work. But I spent the first two of those hours cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry and organizing all our messy bedrooms. Then I took a shower, then I checked my email. Suddenly it was noon. While I had certainly had a busy and productive morning, I hadn’t yet written a word.

The “work” that Julia Cameron asks artists to do is all about lack of productivity. You’re not supposed to be cleaning your house OR outlining your novel. You’re supposed to be browsing in antique shops, making lists of your secret desires, doing “something that simply delights you for no reason.” I find that last one nearly impossible. My kid-free time is Get Stuff Done time, whether it’s my screenplay or my kids’ soccer camp forms. I would never go out for a stroll or hit a midday matinee. I would never give myself that permission.  When Cameron says that’s my “assignment” as a “blocked creative,” I think: nice sentiment. not happening.

But now I’m wondering if–again– maybe I shouldn’t be so proud of that. Sometimes what feels like productivity is really just time wasted. Yes, I typed on my laptop– while visiting Facebook. Repeatedly. Yes, I folded my sons’ t-shirts– just so I can have the pleasure of folding them again next week. Meanwhile, I miss a beautiful summer day- and for what?

From Cameron’s book Walking in this World:

We try to make our creativity linear and goal-oriented. We want our “work” to lead somewhere. We forget that diversions do more than merely divert us…. Artists of all stripe tend to equate difficulty with virtue and ease with slumming. We do not lean into our ease and enjoy the ride of our gift.

I think this is even more true for mothers than it is for artists. We equate difficulty with virtue and ease with slumming. Oh my goodness, do we ever. We think we have to work hard at motherhood in order to be good at it. But just the opposite might be true.

I have ninety minutes until the kids get off the camp bus. I’m going to spend it sitting in the shade, internet turned off, writing Chapter One of something that may never get to Chapter Two. I have no idea if it’s going to be any good. But I’m going to enjoy the ride. When the kids get off the bus, I’ll put the laptop aside until tomorrow– and I hope that I will feel that I have been very productive indeed.

What do you allow yourself to do with your kid-free (job-free) time? Assuming you allow yourself to have any?

You can get a free trial month of My Artist’s Way Toolkit by entering code “BLOGHER” (all caps). You will still need to enter your credit card info (that’s the way the system is set up) but you will be charged zero and you won’t be opted in to anything. 

I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

the summer danger I was forgetting about

I just spent a week on vacation with my husband and kids, my parents, five of my siblings, their partners, and eight of my nieces and nephews, all under the same roof. (That makes eleven kids under ten and twelve adults, for those of you keeping track at home.) And we survived, believe it or not, by taking a village approach to the kids and the meal prep and the chores.

The house we were vacationing in has a pool set off from the house across a wide yard behind a locked fence. That helped us relax about the pool’s safety. Still, all the kids were told they couldn’t be down there without an adult, and we all kept an eye on that part of the yard to make sure no overeager toddlers were sneaking in there anyway. If the kids weren’t in there, they were totally safe, right?

We forgot something.

My nine-year-old son was helping my husband unload some groceries from our car when he happened to hear some knocks on the window from my brother’s car, parked nearby. My four-year-old daughter and five-year-old nephew were stuck inside. They had decided to play in the car, got in, and got stuck in there. During a record-breaking heat wave.

They were probably only in the car for a few minutes; they escaped merely giggling about how hot they were. None of us are sure how long it had been; it wasn’t long enough for any of us to have noticed they weren’t around. Panicked, my father and I tried to impress upon the kids just how dangerous it was to have been in that car. “Do you know what could have happened?” I said. “You could have gone to the hospital.” “You could have been very sick,” my father added, since they weren’t really getting it. Neither of us could bring ourselves to say the truth out loud. They’re kids. It was our fault, not theirs, that they were in danger without knowing it.

And then last night on Facebook, my friend posted Ava’s Rule, the most important way I could ever spread the word about this danger. Five years ago, three-year-old Ava Rosemayer died in her family car, parked in her own driveway. Her parents, Sheye and Crayton Rosemayer, have created a website in Ava’s memory sharing the story of her tragic death and the very simple ways we can all protect our own children:

  • Always lock your car and keep the keys out of your kids’ reach.

  • Tell your children never to go into your car unsupervised.

  • Teach them to blow the horn for assistance if they ever are stuck.

  • Park in the shade whenever possible.

I will certainly be doing all of these things from now on, and I’m so grateful to Ava’s family for having the courage to share her story. I’ll be hugging my daughter extra-tight tonight.