Thursday, April 23, 2009

Birthday Parties Run Amok — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog post:

Birthday parties just aren't what they used to be. They are more — too much more.

When I was a kid, birthdays were fun. My mom made us whatever we wanted for dinner and on the closest weekend, family (cousins, aunts, grandparents) came for cake and ice cream. We only had birthday parties for what my mom deemed to be "special" birthdays: 5 — because you weren't a baby any more; 10 — because you were in double digits; and 13 — because you were finally a teenager. I also had a sleepover when I turned 16, but I was totally responsible for it.

I remember these parties vividly. For my fifth birthday, five little girls come to my house dressed up in their mama's hats and dresses and high heals. We played musical chairs in our dress-up clothes and had a tea party. My special gift was a Tammy doll cake. There was a real doll, and her dress was made of the cake and icing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. My mom used Tammy because she thought that, at five, I was too young to play with a doll that had breasts (i.e., Barbie). It was a lovely, sweet party where the thrill of dressing up and putting on a little lipstick remains a tender memory for me more than 40 years later.

Nowadays, kids have birthday parties every year — often elaborate, expensive birthday parties. Parents are "encouraged" to invite everyone in the class so no one feels left out. While I can appreciate the underlying premise of this "fairness" policy, I found with twins that it got to be ridiculously cumbersome and expensive: one birthday, two children, two classes of 20+ kids. I refused to buy into it, but it did get hard to limit the invitation list.

This month, our local parenting magazine ran a special advertising section on party entertainment. (Full disclosure here: I was checking it out because my husband offers a party package through his pet store.) A full-page, tabloid-sized, four-color ad promoting a princess party caught my eye.

A local salon was offering princess party packages "just for preschool girls" (five and under). Ranging in price from $34.95 to $59.95 per girl, children come dressed in their own costumes and receive a "party up-do", shimmery make-up application, a 15-minute "runway dance", 20 minutes in a party room and a goodie bag with a tiara, glitter spray, lollipop and photo. The more expensive packages included a "mini-mani and mini-pedi" and a "strawberry paraffin hand treatment." Parents provide snacks and drinks.

Is it me, or is this just wrong? Maybe I'm a real Scrooge, but the cost alone gives me heart palpitations, particularly in this economy. For my daughter and five little friends, this party would have run $359.75 + treats and drinks.

While I get that a princess party is many a little girl's dream, the overt sexualization of very young girls that this party package implies makes my stomach more than a little queasy. I admit I don't understand the whole pageant community, and this seems like a direct extension of that mentality.

I don't mean to be a party pooper. There's nothing wrong with a little dress up and make believe. It just seems to me that this same idea could be accomplished in a much more age-appropriate manner, pretty inexpensively, with a little imagination and a reasonable tolerance for mess.

Besides, I didn't get my first pedicure until I was 40.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't busy party planning, she can be found blogging at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Real Good Grammar

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get the heebie-jeebies when they see this cover of The Elements of Style, and those who get warm fuzzies.

It's probably no surprise that the classic Strunk and White grammar reference is a favorite among my ever-growing collection of books on writing, grammar and publishing. My brother claims that while he recognizes when something is grammatically incorrect, I can tell you why. If that's true, it's due in large part to my reliance on The Elements of Style.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of E.B. White's reexamination of Professor William Strunk Jr.'s "little" book, originally self-published in 1918. In the 1971 third edition, White wrote in his introduction: "Today, fifty-two years later, its vigor is unimpaired, and for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken. Even after I got through tampering with it, it was still a tiny thing, a barely tarnished gem."

My copy of that "tiny thing" is 92 pages, including the index, and cost $2.95 when I bought it in 1979. A brand-new, hard-cover 50th anniversary edition is $13.27 on and runs a whopping 128 pages. That pith, along with a dose of humor, is what makes this grammar book, of all things, still newsworthy after 90 years. 

I admit that I'm a grammatical fuddy-duddy. E-text makes me crazy. I loathe the misspellings, lack of punctuation, and incomplete sentences that are acceptable — even expected — in e-mail and texting. I cringe as I see already-mediocre vocabularies being whittled down to a pitiful collection of abbreviations and emoticons ;-). Stop telling me that you are FOTFL and let me hear the joke. I'll decide for myself whether it's funny or not.

By Strunk & White's standards, my writing falls far short of ideal: "Do not inject opinion" (pg. 80), they warn. This blog, indeed blogging in general, would be damed for "affecting a breezy manner" (pg. 73):
The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day. 
But despite the harsh criticism that I imagine I hear directed at me from beyond the grave, I still treasure the advice and simplicity of The Elements of Style. Times change, language grows, and grammar evolves, but evolution does not mean obsolescence. Grammar is the framework upon which we build our stories, the bones that define the features of our characters, and the shiny mirror that allows us to reflect our meaning and our society with clarity and precision. Keeping a few good guides on your desk or bookmarking them online just makes good writing sense.
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy. Dorothy Parker
If you hate the book because you think it has weakened our study of grammar by reducing it to a mere 100 or so pages, you might enjoy Geoffrey Pullum's "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice." If you hate it because you think grammar is stupid and unnecessary (or are just a word nerd, like me), check out Marc Acito's commentary on NPR's All Things Considered called "Who Needs a Manual to Write Real Good."

For those who have not run screaming into the night, you may be interested to know that the revisions to MLA (Modern Language Association) Style also go into effect this month. 

Happy anniversary, Mssrs. Strunk and White, and thanks. If you have a grammar horror story or favorite writing reference to share, please click here.

Finally, in honor of National Poetry Month, here's Carl Sandburg on grammar:
I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sliding Scale Standards — CMB Post

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

Though we have a big family, the six children tend to break down into three distinct subgroups: the big kids — my husband's son and daughter who are now adults; the twins — sometimes called the kids — now 17; and the little boys, 11 and 12 now, but who, because of the nature of family nomenclature, will still probably be called the little boys when they are 41 and 42 years old.

In 20 years of parenting I have learned one thing: never say never. Never say your child will never throw a public temper tantrum — because she will, and very soon. Never say your darling won't read comic books or Mad Magazine, because one day you will be thrilled to see that he is reading anything rather than turning on another screen. And never, ever say my kids won't watch _____________ (TV, cartoons, horror movies, music videos, Disney crap — pick whichever poison comes to mind when you fill in that particular blank).

The big kids were just 10 and 13 when we got married, and most of the movies and television we watched were throwbacks from my childhood. It was fun to watch the old stuff together: screwball comedies, really old Disney flicks, and black and white TV shows like the Munsters and I Love Lucy.

When the twins came along, I restricted their viewing to public television and a few well-chosen videos (Road Construction, Dead Ahead was a favorite). That was about it until they hit grammar school and found out from friends that cable offered a much wider variety of programming than their mother had led them to believe. Still, I set our boundaries and stuck to them: violence was my big bagaboo and I remember hearing my son say, "Sorry, I can't watch that — there are too many guns." I was so smug proud.

But things began to slide about the time the twins hit third grade. I had two toddlers, two school-aged kidlings and two high school-aged stepkids who all had lives and needs and trasportation requirements. I simply no longer had time to monitor every single minute of television that was watched in my house.

First, it was cartoons like Rugrats and Animaniacs that began to slip in. Then the occasional cop show showed up. PG-13 movies were introduced into family movie night when the big kids starting groaning at suggestions of yet another Disneyfest. And my toddlers came right along for the ride.

I rationalized as best I could: "Oh, that innuendo went right over their heads," or "We've talked about what language is appropriate to use and what language is not," and even "Hey, guys, cover your eyes during this next part, OK? It might be a little scary." You try keeping six kids between the ages of 2 and 21 happy with a single form of entertainment and then get back to me.

The little boys have both reaped the benefits and suffered the consequences of this more lax attitude. I try to tell myself that I'm older and wiser, and that I know most of these things really aren't very important in the long run. You know that old saw — little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems? Well, it's true. And if you have a big family, you better learn not to get your knickers in a knot over every little thing or burnout will set in well before your last kid reaches middle school.

But I wonder if I really am older and wiser, or just plain older and tired. Last weekend, my husband said he had rented a movie for the family. When we cranked up the DVD player and I saw that it was the 1995 classic The Usual Suspects (rated R, thank you very much), I ordered a pause to discuss the situation. "If I remember correctly, this film is wildly inappropriate for the 12-year-old," said I. "He'll be fine, and younger brother bailed and went to bed," said my DH. "It's very violent," I countered. "He'll be fine," DH repeated. "It's riddled with profanity," said I. "It's not like he hasn't heard the words before, right kid?"

"Yeah, I've heard them. But I would never use them, Mama," he said, all wide-eyed innocence. Yeah, right.

I gave up, or gave in, or something. I justified this decision by making sure we discussed the film and all its meanings and ramifications. It was a teachable moment, I reassured myself. Don't roll your eyes at me. Your time will come; your standards will slide right off the scale and into the sewer, just like mine did. But don't fret too much about it. There are bigger things to worry about right around the corner. Trust me.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't busy lowering her standards, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Most Improved Mom — CMB Post

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

It's an act of hubris to brag about our children, but as moms, we're all guilty. After all, those accomplishments we love to enumerate — the straight As, the home runs, the chess standings — they really belong to our children. It's hard, though, to keep our pride from bubbling out of our hearts and through our lips, even when we are doing it out of love and not a vicarious sense of competition.

In Hollywood, the award season kicks off with the Golden Globes in January, but every mom knows that kid awards are in May. In this two-week period alone, I will attend at least five ceremonies for my twins, who are high school juniors. (Please note: the following list does not constitute bragging, as I'm trying to make a point here.) My daughter was inducted into the National Honor Society, will be recognized as an outstanding student by three of her teachers (Anatomy, Applied Science and English), and will receive a few other honors, as well. Her twin brother received a "most improved" award in history.

I'm proud of all my children, but these awards for these two children are particularly meaningful because their futures were so precarious when they were born 16 weeks prematurely. At that time, we were hoping they would breathe on their own, so scholastic achievements weren't even on our radar. As I have proudly touted their most recent accomplishments to friends, grandparents and other relatives, it's been hard not to notice the imbalance of accolades. I hear myself saying "she did this" and "she got that" and … she, she, she. Oh, yeah, and he got an award, too — most improved.

A friend recently asked how my son felt about all this attention being bestowed upon his sister. Frankly, it's hard to say, because this is a boy who doesn't register accomplishments (his or anyone else's). This phenomenon is actually part of his set of learning disabilities and reflects an inability to connect planning and effort to achievement, as well as difficulty reading social cues.

This is the second time my son has been recognized as "most improved". The first was after an extraordinarily difficult transition to high school. When you ask him how he feels about these awards, he says "I'm happy," and then wryly notes that it's not hard to be most improved when you start at the bottom — an interesting observation from someone who is supposedly "socially delayed". When you tell him you are proud of him, he says "Thank you." When you ask how he feels about his sister's awards, he says "I'm happy for her."

As his history teacher presented my son with his award, she made special note of his kindness, his upbeat attitude and his positive contribution to the atmosphere of the class. I wish I could give her an award for recognizing these as accomplishments.

"Most improved" is a stunning accomplishment, especially when you improve upon most improved. My goal over the next year is to follow in my son's footsteps to become eligible for the Most Improved Mom Award — a mom who devotes as much of her braggadocio to her children's behavior and character as she does to the more coveted awards and public recognitions. I will strive to instill in my son the same sense of pride I feel for the person he is. It's clear I have a long way to go, but with a little more effort and self awareness, I may have a fighting chance.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog Post. When Susan isn't boasting about her brilliant, beautiful, talented children, she can be found blogging at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Life's Not a Paragraph

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have already experienced profound loss and those who will.

I've been lucky so far in this life. My losses have been quiet goodbyes, gentle by most standards, the soft leavings of old age, cushioned by the generations between them and me. Secondhand losses. 

After my grandfather died, and my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I asked her if she was afraid of death. "Oh, honey," she said. "At my age, death is almost a friend. It's a story I read about every day in the paper."

Death is not always a friend — sometimes it is a thief, robbing us of our dearest treasures. 

Earlier this month, I wrote about my greatest fear — a recurring nightmare I have that one of my children has died. I knew even as I wrote it that I was trampling on someone else's grief. Tragically, unbelievably, one of my fellow bloggers from the Silicon Valley Moms Group is living this nightmare right now, having lost her baby just two days after I posted my nightmares.

(November 11, 2007 - April 7, 2009)

I've never met Maddie's family, but so much of her story is familiar — difficult conception and pregnancy, traumatic, premature birth, eating issues, growing issues — but more importantly:

first teeth, 
first baths,

Her story may not be a long one, but it is a story worth knowing.

This loss, like so many others, was not a quiet one. When a child dies, we roar with the pain, the grief, the missed opportunities of a story barely started. 

A writing friend, Cindy Fey, wrote beautifully about the sudden loss of her dear friend, a peer, a cohort, a man who was walking this life at the same time as her husband when his footsteps suddenly stopped. His premature death left a novella, not a full novel perhaps, but a story worth knowing. 

Death is not always a friend — sometimes it is the harshest of spotlights, the cruelest of mirrors, shining stark light on our own mortality, leaving us gasping and keening.

Another dear friend has experienced more deaths in her family than anyone I know, whittling her immediate family down to a precious few, leaving her clear-eyed and unsentimental. Her losses are a series of short-stories and tall tales, an epic saga — a story worth knowing.

Death is not always a friend — sometimes it's a relentless clock, ticking off the lives of those we know and love as surely as it counts off the seconds of our individual lives — a never-ending death knell.

I know I am lucky — death has brushed by so closely that the hairs on the back of my neck still rise and tremble at the memory. In grateful acknowledgement of those near misses, in tribute to Maddie and Eric and Jill's family, and in celebration of April as National Poetry Month, let's remember that no life is just a paragraph, but a full story worth telling:

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all the flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

and death i think is no parenthesis

Please click here to share a thought, a poem or a comment.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Nightmares are Back — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

I have a few neuroses — who doesn't — but I don't live in constant fear. On the rare occasion when my mind travels down "What If" way, I scare the crap out of myself and do a u-turn as quickly as possible. I'm always afraid if I go too far down that path, there will be no coming back. How's that for neurotic — I'm afraid of being afraid.

But the subconscious is like the highwayman of mental health — it creeps up on you in your dreams and steals your sanity. In times of stress (and with four kids and a dog in a floundering economy, there's not much stress-free time), I have nightmares. I know I'm not alone. According to one recent poll, nearly one in three women has frequent stress dreams.

Mine usually start with the basic college stress dream. You know the one. It's the day of the final exam and you haven't been to class since the first session; you get to the classroom and the venue has changed and you go from room to room searching for your professor as the exam time ticks away. It's been a long time since college, but I'm still taking exams in my dreams every three or four weeks.

Next come the dreams of never-ending frustration. The kitchen floor that keeps growing as you try to wash it; swimming across a pool that keeps getting longer and longer; the endless search for a public restroom when your screaming toddlers have to go potty RIGHT NOW. These dreams exhaust me, but I understand them. I recognize they are my body's way of telling me that I've got too much on my plate — that it's time to figure out what needs to be done and what can be let go.

But the nightmares are different. I should say nightmare — it's always the same — only the roles change. In my nightmare, one of my children has died. I am in the immediate aftermath and I have to figure out how to go on, how to keep living and be a mom to the children who survive. It's a different child every time, and the bulk of the dream is about the altered family dynamics that such a devastating loss brings and my utter failure in navigating it.

I have friends who would be appalled that I'm writing this nightmare out loud. "Puh, puh, puh, don't say such a thing." It's strange trying to express and dissect such a visceral experience, complete with the hyper-reality that the dream state induces. It's also strange that, while I'm always overwhelmed and fully present in the dream, I am also somehow always aware that it is a dream.

My intellectual self understands that these nightmares are also stress induced, exploring in my sleep the unknown future, dangers and ultimate loss that face my children in a way that my practical, daytime mind won't allow. My spiritual self grieves for those families who are living this nightmare in real life, and is grateful every day for our health and well being. But my neurotic self, the one I try to keep in check, is truly terrified by these nightmares and, frankly, a little pissed off that I have absolutely no control over them. They come when they come and there is nothing I can do about it.

Over spring break, three of my children and I are driving down to Florida to visit my parents and my wonderful, talented stepdaughter. My oldest son is flying out to Seattle to spend time with his wonderful, generous big brother — my stepson. I've been having the nightmare every night for the past two weeks. I know I'll have it every night until we're all back home again. If you have a cure, let me know. In the meantime, maybe I'll just stay up and blog all night.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't fretting in her sleep about things she absolutely cannot control, she can be found daydreaming about Two Kinds of People and all things pet related The Animal Store Blog.

Photo Credit: The Unmade Bed by Richard Pluck.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

No Foolin'

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can tell a joke and those who can't.

Sadly, I'm one of the latter. I have only one joke (nope, I'm not going to tell it here; it's a little inappropriate). The gift I bring to comedy is that I'm a great audience, an easy laugh. I'm not, however, indiscriminate. I admit I never got Howard Stern or the Three Stooges (I think it must be a guy thing).

When I was growing up, I loved listening to my parents' comedy records (I know, I'm old). The first one I ever heard was From the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Who will ever forget this Chicago native's one-sided phone conversations? (You forgot? No worries: click here then click on the "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue" or "Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball".)  

I was too young at the time to get  much of the humor by Mike Nichols and Elaine May on Improvisations to Music, although it became one of my favorite albums in college (when I finally got the references), and I still have it in my collection today (don't tell my parents). Here's their riff on the phone company:

Lily Tomlin's This is a Recording , on the other hand, was easily accessible to my young ears, and Ernestine had me howling from the very first "One ringy-dingy …" (Hmm, I'll have to ponder the cultural significance of why so many of our greatest comedians have turned to the telephone for inspiration.)

When I was a kid, my parents would send us to bed and then often sit in the living room to listen to the Hi-Fi. I have vivid memories of my brother and I tiptoeing out of bed and sitting at the top of the stairs so we could hear, too. It was torture trying not to laugh at Bill Cosby's To Russell My Brother, Whom I Slept With. We'd do almost anything to avoid cracking up and being banished back to bed. We knew as soon as one giggle escaped, we were doomed, so we'd bite our tongues and pinch each other and clap both hands over our mouths. It never worked.

Except once. It was 1972 and a friend of my dad's brought over George Carlin's Class Clown. Somehow we managed to get through "Bi-Labial Fricative", "The Confessional" and "Heavy Mysteries" without getting caught, probably because the adults had fallen into hysterics. When George got to the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", we knew we had to be really quiet or we'd be in big, bad, ugly trouble. This was definitely stuff we were not supposed to hear. On the other hand, it was valuable information and, consequently, worth the risk. 

There was something delicious about sneaking all this comedy. It's just not the same flipping through channel after channel of cable standup, although I'm the first to admit I would never have gotten through eight years of George Bush or the most recent election season without Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

Today, of course, we celebrate April Fool's Day with jokes and pranks aplenty. I was surprised to learn that the holiday has been around for hundreds of years, but I'm going to need a couple hundred more before I can pull off any kind of noteworthy prank. I miss the days when my kids were young and dumb and I could crack them up with a plastic fly frozen into an ice cube. What can I say, my kids inherited my "great audience" gene. 

I hope you had a few giggles today. If you're still feeling puckish, check out The Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time. I'm particularly fond of #7, where it was reported that the state of Alabama voted to change the value of Pi from 3.14159… to the "Biblical Value" of 3.0.

Click here to share your greatest practical joke, either given or received. You can even make it up; I'm easily fooled.