Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Crushed by Parental Paperwork — CMB Post

Originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Of the myriad skills necessary for effective parenting, I would have thought that years of working through school and in offices would have prepared me well to handle the paperwork. Wrong.

Four kids, four schools, six doctors, two dentists, several teams, too many extracurricular activities and one dog add up to a lot of paperwork. That doesn't even take into account my own personal papers. No matter how hard I try, I just can't seem to stay on top of the never-ending influx of health forms, permission slips, report cards, sign-up sheets, camp forms, registrations, family histories, and emergency contact sheets. And those are just the forms I have to complete and return.

Then there are the read-only materials, the read-and-file materials, the read-and-act-upon materials and the what-in-the-hell-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this materials. You've got your newsletters, your flyers, your invitations, your reminder sheets and your save-the-dates. And don't forget or misplace the calendars and class lists and team rosters and schedules. Clearly, the promise of a paperless society is nothing but cruel joke.

On top of the sheer volume, there are the two additional complicating factors in the battle of parental paperwork. First, many of these materials arrive weeks or months before they are due, like the camp forms that come in November for activities that won't take place until the following July; or the forms to schedule a Bar Mitzvah that is still two years away. This early-entry paperwork is just a disaster waiting to happen. Forms are like socks — half of them are sucked directly into the black hole that hovers over our house.

The second factor that interferes with efficient paper handling is that many of these materials want me to return them with checks — you know, actual money — for fees, deposits and dues. I don't know about you, but our family does quite a bit of financial juggling, so I can't always afford to write a check for monies that aren't technically due for a month or more.

So, here is where my tale of woe leads me down a bumpy path directly to the the hall of shame. My daughter, one of the world's most organized individuals, is taking an advanced placement (AP) class in high school. We are new to the world of AP and its particular brand of red tape. In addition to taking the class as part of their regular course load, AP students take special exams that are given on the same date everywhere in the country. There are registration forms and fees associated with each AP class and exam.

About six weeks ago, we got a packet in the mail with all kinds of information about test dates and fees and schedules. The $86 test fee was due absolutely no later than Friday, March 20 — no exceptions. If you have been paying attention, you have probably already guessed that I missed the deadline. I could give you a million very good excuses, but the fact is, I screwed up. My girl has busted her butt all year in a college-level class, and I forgot to send in the stupid check. I couldn't sleep all weekend, waking up a hundred times a night with the same cold sweats and stomach churns that have prevented me from pursuing a master's degree. I can't take the pressure of the paperwork.

What to do? Stoop even lower, of course, and give my daughter some brilliant advice about how to wiggle out of the mess I made — I told her to lie. We woke up extra early Monday morning and headed to school, where I coached her to go in and tell the woman collecting the checks that her mother had been out of town for a week and had accidentally taken the form and check with her. It was a plan — not a good plan, I admit, but it might have worked, except the woman wasn't there.

So, I sent my girl back into school, telling her to put the envelope in the woman's mailbox with a note that said she would check in with her Monday morning. Remember, it was already Monday morning. The implication was that the envelope had been turned in on Friday after the woman in charge had already left for the day. I know, I know. I am a terrible, horrible mother.

The good news is that there were many other similar envelopes in the mailbox, and when my girl checked in with the AP woman (as she promised she would), she was assured that everything was fine.

Fine. Unless you count the fact that I totally flushed my integrity, credibility and any hope of ever claiming the moral high ground again with my daughter, then sure, everything is fine.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't hanging her head in shame or digging out from under an avalanche of paperwork, she can be found writing pulp-free at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Crushed by Paperwork

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who face paperwork with calm equanimity and those who fold under the pressure.

For a discussion on how parenting is impacted by paperwork and how it brought me to my knees, check out my latest post on the Chicago Moms Blog. Feel free to share your own paperwork peccadillos by clicking here .

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Premio Dardos!

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love Italy and those who don't.

I admit it, I'm an Italophile. It's probably because my first foray oversees was to Italy, and it probably didn't hurt that it was on my honeymoon. Since that very first trip, my best dreams revolve around spending six months a year living and writing in Italy, preferably at the Hotel San Pietro in Positano.
Since I am (at least) several best sellers away from realizing this dream, imagine my delight when the talented and bellissimo Cindy Fey from Well All Fall Down bestowed upon Two Kinds of People the prestigious Premio Dardos Award. Molto grazie, Cindy.

You say you have never heard of this incredible honor? Let me explain. "Premio Dardos" means "prize darts" in Italian. The award is granted in "recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. The award was created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers and showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

Acceptance carries these stipulations:

Step 1: Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

Step 2: Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

Step 3: Answer the following questions on your own blog, replacing one question that you dislike with a question of your own invention, and adding one more question of your own.

1) What are you wearing right now? Clothes. And really grungy slippers.

2) What is your biggest fear? As posted on the Chicago Moms Blog, suffice it to say that it involves death.

3) Do you nap a lot? "A lot" implies both time and opportunity, both sorely lacking in my life at the moment. I will admit that my endodontist claimed I was the only patient he ever had who fell asleep during a root canal. Time — about 2 hours. Opportunity — sitting in a reclining chair with no kids in sight while being administered good drugs. Sounded like nap time to me.

4) Who is the last person you hugged? My girl, who just wandered over for a random kiss and hug.

5) What websites do you visit when you go online? The aforementioned We All Fall Down, Chicago Moms Blog and its sister sites, The Animal Store, various writing sites and blogs.

6) What was the last item you bought? Girly martinis yesterday evening at The Globe (well martinis, $5 on Fridays) — one for my friend's birthday, which happened to be yesterday, and one for my half-birthday, which also happened to be yesterday.

7) What are you reading? Anne Fadiman's essay collection entitled At Large and at Small. I love the way she ties the most arcane details into a beautiful whole, and her command of the English language frequently makes me feel like a lazy writer. Click here for an excerpt, and check out her earlier collection, Ex Libris, which I thought was even better.

8) If you could go to the Oscars, who would you want to sit next to? Oh, the pressure of what to wear is already making me a nervous wreck. I think Robert Downey, Jr. for fun, or Robert Redford because, well, he's Robert Redford.

9) Has a celebrity's hair cut every influenced your own hairstyle? If I were to go to the Oscars (see question 8), I'd go for the Rita Hayworth do shown here.

10) What is the one skill you wish you had, but don't? Being able to play the piano brilliantly by ear.

11) What is the last movie you watched? I think it was Slum Dog Millionaire, but we may have rented something since then. Clearly, it wasn't very memorable.

12) What is the luckiest thing that every happened to you? My preemie twins survived and thrived.

13) If you had a whole day to yourself — no work, commitments or interruptions —what you would do? Sleep in, meet a friend for brunch, write, have good Chinese complete with Mai Tais with a friend, see a funny movie, stay up late writing.

14) Is there a major goal that you haven't yet achieved? It was humbling and a little daunting to trace back through the winners of the Premio Dardos Award to discover that most of us have the same goal: to get our book(s) published.

15) What is the thing you wish you could forget? My first phone number, which I haven't had since I was eight years old. It's clogging up needed brain cells. I could also stand to lose a few jingles and television theme songs.

16) What is something that those in blogland might not know about you? I'm a rabid University of Michigan football fan and still in mourning over our dismal 2008 season.

17) What states and countries have you visited as an adult? Alphabetically:

States: Alabama, California, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Countries: British Virgin Islands, Canada, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Switzerland, USA

18) What do you do to relieve stress? Take a bath; drive and play my music really loud.

19) If you could change one physical trait about you what would it be? I would be tall and thin.

20) In what room in history would you have liked to be a fly on the wall? Let's see, perhaps watching Lincoln rehearse the Gettysburg Address.

21) What is your favorite hotel? As I already mentioned, my favorite is the Hotel San Pietro in Positano, Italy, but I'd love to hear other favorites, so this is my new question.

I hereby bestow the Premio Dardos upon:

Angela at Domestic Blitz

Congratulations to you all.
Please share your thoughts and comments by clicking here.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Gift Giving 101 — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are good at gift giving and those who aren't. In fact, there are two other kinds of people in the world: those who are good at receiving gifts and those who aren't.

Gift giving and gift receiving are both subtle arts, as evidenced by the recent brouhaha over the gifts exchanged by President Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Seems the 25 DVDs of American film classics that Obama presented to Mr. Brown did not quite compare to the ornamental pen holder made from timbers of the HMS Resolute, the sister to the ship that yielded the wood for the President's desk in the oval office. Oh, yeah, and a framed commission of the of the HMS Resolute. And a first edition of the seven-volume biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert. We won't even get into the kids gifts.

If it is truly the thought that counts, it doesn't seem to me that a lot of thought went into the DVDs. As British columnist Iain Martin told NPR's Robert Siegel, "We do have television and DVDs over here."

I love choosing the exact right gift for someone. It's gotten harder, both due to tough economic times and lack of actual time, to put the same kind of thought and effort into my gift giving, but it still affords me great pleasure when I do it right. And doing it right has nothing to do with how much something costs. The question should always be "Will this delight the person receiving it?" The right gift can be something longed for, or something never even dreamed of. It can be huge or tiny or completely intangible. It can be the result of great effort or a serendipitous find. But the perfect gift is always personal — meaning specific to that person.

I once gave my father several DVDs as a gift for some holiday or other; not 25 of them, but several at least, maybe five or ten. My father is a movie buff and these were the films of Stanley Kubrick, his favorite director. He loved them. The DVDs were personal for him.

I've tried to instill this love of gift giving in my children as a sort of antidote to the constant case of the "I wants" that seems to infect the young (and the not-so-young). Even more importantly, I've tried to teach them the fine art of being a wonderful gift receiver. This isn't as easy as it sounds.

When I was a kid, we visited a distant elderly relative who gave my brother and me each a wildly inappropriate gift, hopelessly out of fashion and much too young for us. I seem to remember accepting it reluctantly and proffering a very weak "thank you." My mother was furious, and gave a lecture on the way home that still stings when I think about it. It ran along the lines of how lovely it was that someone who barely knew us took the time to go out shopping, spending perfectly good money to purchase a gift for each of us, and that that effort alone was a precious gift, and that if we were ever lucky enough to receive another gift in our lifetimes, we had best show profound and humble gratitude, no matter what that gift was.

I will also say that my mother set the best example, still reigning as the champion gift receiver of all time. We gave her some really lame gifts when we were kids, including an atrocious brooch with plastic turquoise cherries, some horrible perfume and a plastic cup that my brother melted in the oven for some scouting project. She loved them all. I swear you could wrap an empty box in the Sunday comics and my mom would say: "For me? Oh, thank you so much." And you would feel so good. I hope I have taught my children as well.

On the other hand, I know people who, no matter what gift is given, always ask if I kept the receipt so they can return it. How rude.

Sometimes we receive gifts that may not be exactly what we wanted or expected. Perhaps the gift giver was busy or preoccupied, say with a crushing economic crisis, mounting unemployment and a brand new job. This is where knowing how to receive gifts graciously can make the entire experience pleasant for everyone. After all, giving and receiving gifts is meant to be joyful.

So, on behalf of the American people, I would like to thank Mr. Brown for the lovely, thoughtful gifts he bestowed on our new President. I hope he and his family enjoy the movies. And to Mr. Martin and the rest of the British press, my mother says that a simple "thank you" will do.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't busy wrapping presents and writing thank you notes, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Fun With Google

There are two kinds of people in the world. Or are there? 

Some time ago, a fellow writer from Off Campus Writers' Workshop, Ruth Spiro, told us about a handy little tool called Google Alerts. (BTW, congrats to Ruth on the publication of her fabulous picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist.)

The Google Alerts utility allows you to enter a search term, then crawls the Web and sends you e-mail alerts anytime your topic or phrase shows up online. Ruth shared an anecdote about how she set up a Google Alert for her own name, and found out that a magazine had published a story she had submitted (more than a year before) without notifying her or providing appropriate remuneration. Ruth sent a charming letter to the publication, thanking them for publishing her story and including an invoice. They paid her! You can see, in an environment where writer's are being pilfered and plagiarized without being paid, setting up a Google Alert for your name and your work is a practical and vital tool. 

Ruth also suggested that Google Alerts are a good way to help protect our children and their online reputations. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter represent just a few of the more well-known ways of social networking that are spreading online like herpes during spring break. Many people, especially young people, don't understand how important it is to protect their online identities, yet stories abound of lost opportunities due to an ill-considered blog post, an incriminating photo, or even a brief Facebook comment. Just today, there was a tragic story about a teenage girl who committed suicide because, after breaking up with her boyfriend, he sent a nude photo of her out over text messages, which resulted in crushing harassment.  This lovely pastime has now been dubbed "sexting". As my Dad says, we've come too far.

Not wanting my children to suffer these terrible consequences, I immediately set up Google Alerts for each of their names. (No, it's not spying, it's parenting. There's a difference. Hey, did I just hear you mumble "Patriot Act" under your breath. Clearly, you don't have teenagers.) 

I started getting Google Alerts based on these search phrases and discovered that four of our six children have nominal twins. Our last name is not that unusual, but the spelling is relatively uncommon, so I was surprised at this duplication. Turns out our oldest boy at home (who really is a twin) has a name-twin in NY who is a fashion photographer. I actually had a brief, cool email correspondence with this talented young man. Our second youngest is related by name only to a jazz pianist. Our eldest, who works at Microsoft in Seattle, shares his name with a budget coordinator in Canada; and one of our girls has a name-twin in high school in Auburn, Washington.

This gave me a story idea and led me to Google all of our family names.  (No, it was not wasting time, it was research.  Don't you people know anything about writing?) All this information led me to start thinking about identity and individuality and a few other "i" words. When we are expecting a baby, most of us spend hours, days, weeks poring over baby name books, looking for just the right one that will reflect the person we hope he or she will become. You have to take so many things into consideration: 
  • initials (while Pamela Madeline Smythe may strike a chord in your head, you must not saddle your daughter with the initials PMS).
  • sibling names (once you've gone down the biblical road with a name like Abraham, you can't really name his little sister Tiffany).
  • dangerous nickname possibilities. (Here, I must tell you a little story about my closest cousin. She and I grew up together as the only girls on that side of the family, daughters of two sisters who were very close. She gave her first daughter the beautiful name Alexandra and told me in all seriousness that they would call her Lexie, but spell it with an "-ie" so she would never be called "Sexy Lexy". It still makes me laugh.)
In the end, our children are who they are. They either love their names, or they hate them, and there's not a lot you can do about it.

Fiction writers, however, get to relive the joy and angst of naming people every time we create a new character. My daughter, who is doing a creative writing independent study, raises a lot of eyebrows as she peruses her baby name books in the high school cafeteria. Her teacher/mentor has been needling her for some new character names, and she came up with this gem: Iambic Pentameter, III. I wish I had thought of it.

In addition to name-twins, there is the common myth that we all have a physical lookalike somewhere in the world. My creative writer girl recently ran across the following video featuring a British musician named Geraldine Quinn.  My girl said: "This is what I'm going to look like in 10 years. This woman looks just like me. Smiles like me too."

While there are some striking similarities, with no offense to Ms. Quinn, my girl is much more beautiful. (This is a completely unbiased opinion.) In an interesting twist, when we did a Google image search for Geraldine Quinn, we found that her younger pictures look significantly less like the current version of our girl. Those who know MPB will be amused to see this video of her future self (although she assures me that she will never become this intoxicated). Those who don't will just enjoy the fabulous rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah by Tim Minchin with Geraldine.

Let me know if you've had any good Google giggles or revelations by clicking here. And if you have a little more time, click here to read my new post on the Chicago Moms Blog about Obama's gift giving snafu.