Croutons in the Time of COVID

On Amazon Prime, Preparing for the Barter Economy, and Why People Should Not Eat Bats

I’ve always considered my absent-mindedness a personal failure. It’s a shortcoming that has led to both hilarity ( Kristi left the keys in the car last night and it got STOLEN! Hahaha!) and misfortune (Kristi left the key in the car last night and it got STOLEN! Bummer!). However, with the pandemic looming, I find myself reaping the rewards of forgetfulness. Due to the many, many Amazon Prime Subscribe and Save automated deliveries I’ve forgotten to cancel, I am FLUSH with toilet paper, people! I mean I have a CRAP ton of the stuff. And I think I have another three boxes coming on the first of the month. I could check my account, but I’ll probably forget by the time I finish writing this sentence. 

For the past couple of years, giant man-sized boxes of paper towels, ketchup, dish soap, etc. have been appearing at the top of my driveway as if by magic.  Generally, these boxes are not cause for celebration: I ALREADY HAVE seven boxes of laundry detergent and enough toothpaste to last me through 2022.  Plus, the boxes are HEAVY, resulting in them  sitting for days in the garage, sprouting messy streams of brown packing paper and plastic pillows, while I implore my children to unpack and distribute the items.  

Well guess who has seven bags of croutons, 12 bottles of EVERYONE hand soap, and is well-provisioned for an intestinal flu or eventual pandemic? This gal! 

I’m so stocked with paper goods, you don’t even KNOW. At last count, I have 32 boxes of Kleenex and 460 paper plates as well as large amounts of some more perishable items. We really need to start eating down our Triscuit supply before it goes stale. 

Before you start judging me as a hoarder, I have made several monetary donations to the local Food Bank and other community organizations.  It’s just that, we don’t know how long this thing is going to last, and my family poops A LOT, so I’m holding onto my stash for now, thanks. Additionally, I fully expect that we’ll be transitioning to a barter economy in the near future. And my chocolate supply is dwindling, since that is something I’m afraid to buy in bulk. I’ve been knows to eat a week’s supply of chocolate in under a minute, I’m not going to lie.  However, I’m not going to sit down and use ten rolls of toilet paper in one sitting (unless things go very, very wrong). That’s where the bartering comes in. 

These are crazy times.  It feels like I’ve entered one of my historical fiction romance novels (minus the romance and fiction) where the world is in crisis and the heroine (a doctor/witch/forest dweller) works tirelessly to save her patients while falling madly in love with a nearby doctor/elf/Scottish highlander. However, I’m not a doctor, and clicking DONATE NOW or gloating over my stash of taco seasoning does not provide the same satisfaction as administering a lifesaving leech bleed, dragon piss poultice or healing potion.

Some of you may recognize the title of this post as an homage to Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You might be wondering, “is she really comparing her family’s passion for croutons to the unrequited love of a young man for a women trapped in a loveless marriage for 50 years (credit to Wikipedia)?” The answer is, of course, yes.

What can we learn from previous outbreaks of diseases such as cholera? Well, at some point, people were like, “Hey, let’s NOT poop into our water supply and see if that helps, ok? Everyone on board with that? Great.”And later: “Have you noticed a lot less people are dying horribly these days? Huh.” 

Hopefully people in China are having a similar conversation about animal consumption. “Listen, no more exotic bat meals, people! Can we all agree that eating disease-carrying creatures is not worth the economy-crushing, world-grinding-to-an-excruciating-halt, lung-drowning cost?” 

Or as in the words of my husband, “People should stop eating weird shit.” 

Cautionary note: We can’t hold all Chinese people accountable for the bat-eating of some of their brethren, any more than we can all blame South Americans for the Macarena. (You’re singing it now, aren’t you? AREN’T you?) We CAN insist the Chinese government take action to close down wildlife markets where diseases such as COVID can begin. Just like governments have a moral obligation to prevent folks from taking a dump into the town reservoir, they must also restrict exotic animal markets that can breed viruses.

Look, I’m not being judgy. I bet bats can be tasty…? There’s no reason why eating say, a pig, is less objectionable to eating a bat, except for cultural perspective (unless you’re my daughter, in which case you’d probably rather eat a bat). In fact, I bet the main reason eating bats never occurred to Americans is because of our Super-Sized mentality. How much meat can there really be on that thing? You can literally see its bones through its wings.

No, the noble bat can’t be singled out. We can, however, blame the Chinese government for their delayed response to the initial outbreak. I would compare this to a crowd on the riverbank noting, “Looks like Aunt Bertha is taking a steamer upstream…should we do anything about that? We should? Well..your know Aunt Bertha. She packs a mean right hook along with a full colon that could really do a number on the economy. Let’s just see how this plays out.”

And because of that delayed response, we find ourselves in a deadly cause and effect chain exacerbated by the delayed response of other parties and governments (note my political restraint here).

My children used to love the book “A Fly Went By,” which begins with a fly- you guessed it!- flying by- and ends with Farmer Brown stomping all over the countryside with a bucket on his foot pursued by (or pursuing?) an angry goat. We are Farmer Brown, people. We need to get the bucket off our foot, stop pooping in the water supply, and hunker down somewhere at socially responsible distances from each other.

I’ll bring the croutons.

The Bader Christmas Letter!

Faithful readers, your Christmas letter and card will be late this year because of an envelope snafu: namely, I don’t have any.  Be assured we are working hard to rectify this problem. In the meantime, please enjoy the letter in blog-post form, complete with bonus pictures!

December 25, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

Season’s greetings from Cape Cod! The Christmas of 2015 finds us basking in the sultry glow of our Christmas Story leg lamp and binge-watching American Ninja Warriors while nursing varied strains of intestinal and respiratory viruses. As the Elf on the Shelf tracks every sneeze and digestive gurgle with her beady and accusatory eyes, we wallow in the eye-watering holiday scents of holly, Peptol Bismol, and Vick’s Menthol Rub. Merry, merry Christmas.

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Not pictured: me, folding 7 loads of laundry.

Despite our current viral load, we are overjoyed to be celebrating (or recuperating) back on Cape Cod after battling road rage in our Nation’s Capitol for two years. Our beautiful new house features a winding, uphill, half mile long driveway, perfect for winter sledding and discouraging pesky trick-or-treaters. Although we love the privacy, winter poses a unique challenge: removing the snow from our “Corridor of Death” (inaccurately described in the MLS listing as merely a “Corridor of Grievous Bodily Harm”). Filled with stark terror at the prospect of spending four months trapped in the house with his cranky and sick family, Eric spent a year of Jake’s college tuition on a Husqvarna ST330 professional grade snow blower, thus ensuring a particularly mild winter across New England. Seventy degrees on Christmas Day? You’re welcome, neighbors.

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Driveway of Death

Speaking of our teenager, and his now urgent quest for scholarship money… Jake capped off his Arlington, Virginia experience with a groovy concert at the School of Rock, where he wowed the crowd with his Motown drumbeats. After a Cape Cod summer of sailing camp and X-box parties, he started his freshman year with many of his old friends at Sandwich High School. When he’s not engrossed in Latin declensions or photoshopping pictures of Bingo for Digital Literacy class, he can be found playing drums with the High School Jazz Band or working out with his buddies at Compass Athletics. In his down time, he sequesters himself in his basement man-cave with nerf guns and South Park DVDs. The pungent smell down there after a long weekend is more bracing than an actual cavern.

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Smiley after School of Rock performance.

Speaking of pungent smells, Danny’s all-fruit diet came to a screeching halt last week, when he was fitted with braces and the dreaded palate expander. He has taken this in stride with his usual good humor, switching to an all-applesauce diet, making the most of his new Daffy Duck lisp (“thufferin’ thuccotash!”) and continuing with his usual palette of sports (basketball, hockey, lacrosse, etc.). Although Danny was sad to leave Arlington, where he played first base for the undefeated Red Sox (Babe Ruth Champions) and right wing for the Ice Dogs (Capitol Corridor Champions) he has enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones here in Sandwich. Before graduating from Tuckahoe Elementary School, he took part in a school trip to Aachen, Germany to visit the wonderful Steubner family, our guests from last Fall. Although it rained a lot (and hailed, and snowed, and sleeted…) Kristi and Danny still managed to tour three countries and visit the Throne of Charlamagne, European Parliament, various Beirhauses, and a museum devoted entirely to chocolate. For his part, Danny mastered the Rubik’s cube, went Discoschwimmin’ at a Dutch waterpark, and lost five pounds on an all oranges and bread diet (not a fan of wienershnitzel.)

With Jake on drums and Danny on guitar, the boys played a heavily-edited-but-still-rockin’ rendition of “Walk This Way” at a local church recital. (Google the lyrics. I bet Steven Tyler couldn’t even spit them out in front of a minister.) In any case, with Anna’s newfound love of the piano and Kristi’s vocal stylings, we are close to realizing Kristi’s dream of forming a post-punk, Von Trapp-style band. We only need to uncover Eric’s (very) deeply hidden musical talent.

For better or worse, Anna absolutely embraced her inner drama queen after starring as a unicorn wizard in the Tuckahoe Elementary school play in April. Although she misses her Arlington friends terribly, she has re-adjusted to life on the Cape and is excited to be reunited with her good friends here. She played pilgrim Dorothy Bradford in the 3rd grade play and was a cheerleader for the Pop Warner Bulldogs. On her soccer team, she employed a unique “3D” strategy that complemented the talents of her more skilled teammates: Dance, Distract, Defend. In a tight game, nobody covers the cute, chatty one doing the Tango at midfield. She has also earned $118 in “Piano Money” from her music teacher (cash value: approximately 35 cents). She continues to excel in school and enjoys playing town basketball and earning patches with her Brownie troop.

Kristi is thrilled to finally be unpacked and hopes one day to have pictures on the walls instead of sitting on the floor next to the walls. Leaving friends and family in Arlington was hard, but she was excited to reunite with her Sandwich friends and favorite beaches! When she is not driving kids around and madly keeping track of everyone’s activities on her color-coded calendar, she can be found substitute teaching or volunteering in the local schools. She and the rest of the family are overjoyed that Julie and Bob sold their house in Maryland and moved to the Cape, ostensibly to be closer to their grandchildren. But, we all know the true reason is easy access to Eric’s risotto dinners:).

Although he misses his co-workers on the Appropriations Committee, Eric is more than happy to be back at Air Station Cape Cod as Executive Officer. It turns out he prefers managing the Base-wide urinalysis program to Capitol Hill intrigue and riding the underground Senate trolley. The fact that he occasionally gets to fly again may also have something to do with his improved attitude.

We welcome all friends and family from Arlington and beyond to visit us at our secluded hilltop retreat in Sandwich. If you visit in winter, you might want to bring a shovel. Just in case. 🙂

Love,
Eric, Kristi, Jake, Danny, and Anna Bader (and Bingo)

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A Head Lice Saga, Part II: “A Song of Spray and Lint-Roller”

 

“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War”

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Please, mommy, don’t shave my head.“- Anna Bader

In the last (cliffhanger!) episode of “Just One Mom’s Opinion,” our heroine was devastated by the return of the dreaded scalp scourge (lice). Read on for the exciting conclusion to this tale/tail.

 

It was late August on the Cape, and instead of meeting my friend Bree at Old Silver for afternoon beach cocktails I was standing in my kitchen, staring in horror at my daughter’s scalp. Crestfallen disbelief soon turned to stone-cold resolve, though, as I realized that to defeat this scurry-legged foe, I needed back-up.

Time to call in a Professional.

As usual in a crisis, I turned to my friend Sarah and the internet for help. Both directed me to Maryellen Kumiega, AKA “The Picky One,” AKA Badass Lice Assassin.

The word “nitpicker” has many connotations, none of them positive. Google tells us that a “nitpicker” is “a person given to harsh judgements and finding faults.” My imagination tells me that a “nitpicker,” (which is, after all, a vowel and a consonant away from “nosepicker),” is an overweight, stringy-haired old lady in a stained sweatshirt who waddles into your house with a mouth full of bobby pins, settles down on the couch and says things like, “Ima pick myself some nits now, chile. Y’all mind if I watch ma stories whilst I git ‘em?

She was not what I expected.

Salvation arrived in the form of a trim, neatly dressed woman in her mid-late forties who carried a stool, a high-powered spotlight, and a bag of pesticide-free whoop-ass. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Maryellen spent the next hour educating me about lice eradication while she gently clipped, sprayed, and combed the critters out of my daughter’s hair. It felt like a homey hair salon, only with more death.

The Great Lice Massacre

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The first step was the application of a plastic-based Spray of Death to my daughter’s sectioned hair (Divide and Conquer). Next, she wielded the steel-toothed Comb of Death to cull the stunned critters much like Lord Walder Frey’s dispatched his assassins to destroy the Stark family in The Red Wedding on the Game of Thrones. As a final humiliation, she then trapped the lice and nit carcasses on sticky paper (Lint-Roller of Death), where they lay stricken and motionless while I cackled evilly.

Maryellen’s motto is, “When in Doubt, Comb it Out.” Not quite as intimidating as “With Fire and Blood, I Will Take What’s Mine,” but good advice all the same. To that end, she recommends the purchase of the LiceMeister Comb, a powerful weapon available on Amazon for under 15 dollars. I bought three.

 

 

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Recommended by the National Pediculosis Association, so you know it’s good. 

She recommends combing out your child’s hair during or after showering 2-3 times a week for the first three weeks after treatment and once a week after that, all the while loudly humming “A Song of Ice and Fire.” This will serve to thoroughly eliminate and intimidate any remaining lice or nits and prevent future infestation.

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Helpful Combing Calendar
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Maryellen is like Daenaryes, minus the weird dragon baby.

And so, 100% liberated from the scourge of lice, my daughter and I bid a fond farewell to the lovely Maryellen (“Hope to see you again…never!). Yes, the cost was high, but to paraphrase the famous Mastercard commercial:

Head Lice removal: $125
Travel fee: $20
Two Licemeister combs and one bottle of Lice Prevention Spray: $46
Guaranteed total destruction of all critters, along with lint-roller sheet full of carcasses in plastic baggie to prove to husband that the lice infestation was, in fact, not imaginary: PRICELESS.

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LICE IS NOT NICE: A Head Lice Saga

Dear Faithful Readers,

It has been almost a full year since my last blog post. How this happened, I have no idea. But, as usual, I have lots of excuses. Here is what I’ve been up to for the past 11 months of not updating my blog.

Substitute teaching
Tutoring a Russian businessman (Mafioso?)
Planning exotic vacations and chickening out because of the price
Battling lice infestation
Binge Reading Warrior-Princess Trilogies
Buying a house
Moving to a new house
Doing about 5,000 loads of laundry
Cleaning up massive washing machine flood

As you can see, it’s been a busy year. Let’s start with the creepiest of these events: Lice Infestation. Admit it, you are already scratching your scalp, imagining those little buggers scurrying across your nape, laying waste to the hair follicles with tiny transparent balls of shame that you will spend hours, HOURS, gingerly picking off with your fingernails. Nightmare.

Shortly after we moved into our new house, on a bright, sunshiny morning meant for lazy, breezy hours on the beach, my daughter came into my room complaining of an itchy head. Immediately I began bargaining with God. Lord, please let it be dandruff. Or poison ivy. Or hives. Or flesh-eating bacteria, or the plague, or pretty much anything but the L word.

No such luck. As soon as I looked at her hairline, I saw the minuscule, oval-shaped Spawn of Hell dotting her scalp. Immediately gripped by the eerie sense of calm that usually descends upon me in a crisis, I silently considered my options. I should…laundry…vacuum the..everything…bag up…pillows, stuffed animals, brushes…throw away..bed linens! All of this went through my head in a split second, and I knew what I had to do.

“Mommy?” asked my daughter worriedly.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” I told her comfortingly. “We just have to move out of the house for a few weeks. Either than or burn the house down and build a new one with the insurance money. And shave your head.”

Needless to say, neither she nor my husband was a fan of my ideas. While my daughter locked herself in the bathroom, sobbing, I called my husband and told him the news.

“Listen” he said sensibly. “We just bought the house. We are not moving out of it. Plus, you have to live in a house for at least a year before you can collect insurance money for a house fire.”

“Is that true?” I asked, puzzled.

“Probably not. I don’t know. But please don’t set the house on fire. After the washing machine flood, we can’t risk another insurance claim.”

“But…the laundry…” I whimpered.

He sighed impatiently. “Look, don’t go overboard on the laundry, okay? For all you know, she doesn’t even have lice. You’re probably just being paranoid.”

“Oh, she has lice.” I said indignantly, and realized that he was obviously in Stage One of Grief: Shock and Denial, while I (being highly sophisticated in my emotional responses) had advanced with lightning quickness to Stage Three: Anger and Bargaining.

“Do you not remember the Lice Outbreak of 2011?!” I gripped the phone tightly as I tried to keep from raising my voice. “Do you remember how much that SUCKED?!! We were stuck at home for weeks in front of the TV while I picked the nits out of her baby-fine hair. Do you know how many episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba I had to sit through?”

“Well, she probably didn’t have it last time either,” he said irritably.

“That’s not what her preschool said,” I told him. “Yo Gabba Gabba! I had technicolor nightmares for weeks! the green striped one..he had no shoulders..his arms came straight out of his neck…”

“I think you may have a little PTSD from that experience,” he said. “Look on the bright side- she’s too old for that show now.”

I felt a terrible sense of foreboding. “Oh. My. God. Austin and Ally? Ant Farm? The fake laugh tracks..the horrible puns..the painfully bad acting…”

At that point I think my husband hung up. I’m not sure. I was trapped in my own personal hell. After rocking back and forth for a while, I was confronted by my daughter’s tear stained face and realized I had to pull it together for her sake.

“We are going to BE OKAY,” I announced. “Now, come here and give me a big h…high five!” I congratulated myself on my quick thinking while I smacked her palm and then quickly retreated to a safe distance. “This is a great excuse for some mother-daughter time. We are going to have some female-bonding, lice-killing fun!”

YOU TOO, can eliminate lice and spend some quality time together by following the three steps below, which I have assigned the helpful acronym “BAD.”

BAD” (or Mommy-Daughter Fun Week!)

1. BUY: First, make the obligatory money drop at CVS: get plenty of anti-lice shampoos, conditioners, combs, sprays, hair clips, hair bands, and bandannas. Shove the resulting three-feet-long receipt of shame deep into the recesses of your purse and later, when your husband is rummaging around for the checkbook and pulls it out accusingly, you tell him that yes, it IS in fact possible to spend $168 at CVS, and did he notice the valuable coupon for $3 off Stomach-Acid Reducers Including CVS Brand, attached to that receipt? In response, he mutters something about needing those TUMS when he gets the credit card bill, at which point YOU helpfully remind him that he doesn’t even LOOk at the credit card bill because you are the one who pays it, to which he responds that you better believe he is going to START looking at it, which is your cue to lapse into a tearful gibbering tirade about neckless wavy-armed monsters. At this point he wisely retreats to the couch to watch football while you go change the sheets on all the beds for the third time, just in case.

2. APPLY: Second, apply your chosen anti-lice product to yourself and your daughter. Hide your pesticide-soaked scalps under flowered shower caps and give each other mani-pedis while listening to Taylor Swift on your phone. When your sons angrily pound on the door and demand to know why you’ve been in there for an hour, it’s time to rinse. Before you use the special metal comb to scrape those little buggers off your daughter’s scalp, you may want to take some kitchen shears and give her a cute new bob. Remember, many chic hairstyles of today are intentionally jagged or uneven, so chop away! When your sons’ protestations (“I need to use the toilet, I want waffles, the toaster’s on fire”) get truly irritating, take them to get their heads shaved at your local barber shop. This will also serve to quiet any doubts your daughter may be voicing about her own snazzy new haircut.

3. DE-LOUSE THE HOUSE: Contrary to widely held belief, you do NOT have to
launder every item in your house, only the ones that your daughter has touched in the past 3 weeks. For example, you only need to wash her bedsheets, unless, for example, your daughter regularly wanders into other family members’ beds in the middle of the night and/or makes forts out of all the blankets, pillows, and sheets in the house, in which case you are screwed. If you find the amount of laundry overwhelming, you can always put any linens, pillows, stuffed animals, toys, or other items in sealed plastic bags. After 14 days, the lice will either be dead, or your husband, having assumed that the garbage bags were full of actual garbage, will have taken the bags to the dump. Either way, problem solved! Lastly, vacuum and wipe down everything in the house, which depending on the size of your house, could take you 3 hours or several years.

NOTE: As you carefully follow these three important steps, remember to stop regularly (about every 10-15 seconds), and check your daughter’s head compulsively for nits. This is done by holding individual strands of her hair up to the light until you find one of the translucent, tiny eggs, yelling “FOUND ONE!” in triumphant disgust, removing the entire hair follicle, and placing it in bowls of bleach you have placed around the house for this purpose. The importance of doing this continuously and enthusiastically cannot be overstated.

Let’s say that you have done BAD. You congratulate yourself on your level-headed response to the crisis and put it behind you.

Weeks go by.

Then, the unthinkable happens.

It’s probably dandruff. Or a trick of the light. It couldn’t possible be…but it is.

A nit.

Your daughter starts to cry as you loose forth a string of thinly veiled profanity. “Fack! Shart! Godeemit fickin’ crappity FRICK! “ Passers-by stop to stare as you scrabble through your daughter’s hair in a white-eyed panic, spewing forth vaguely demonic/Norwegian sounding epithets. This is bad. Really, really bad.

Well, guess what? Calm the fuck down. It’s all going to be fine.

You don’t believe me. How could this not be the end of the world?

Three simple words:

Mary. Ellen. Kumiega.

I’m sure you were expecting something like,

Shave. Her. Head. Or: Start. Drinking. Heavily.

Nope.

If you would like to hear the rest of this story, leave me some positive feedback and maybe I’ll finish it next week. Or, if you’ve heard enough about lice and you are couldn’t care less about Mary Ellen Kumiega, leave me some positive feedback anyway, because I don’t take criticism well.

Sausage Making, Dog Fighting, and Nudity: The Bader Family Xmas Letter 2014

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Merry Christmas from the Bader family! This Christmas morning,  I have chosen to focus on the truly important things: Family, friends, and ignoring them both while I spend seven hours crafting a truly memorable holiday letter. Enjoy.

xmas letter.pages (important note: this is not the actual letter. It is a link to the letter. You must click on it to see the letter. Second important note: Unless you are legal blind, you will want to de-magnify the giant screen.)

To The Hockey Mom Who Made My Daughter Cry

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She is as sweet as she looks (unless you ask her to clean her room)

Dear Trash Lady,

There are so many things I want to say to you, some of which don’t even involve profanity. But let’s start with this: Why do you clearly think you’re better than me? And why do you have to use my child to make that point?

You may remember me from last Tuesday’s unpleasant confrontation at the hockey rink? I was sitting by the window chatting with my friend when you took it upon yourself to order my daughter to throw away her trash. She was indeed guilty of the crime of eating a bagel from the hockey rink snack bar and thoughtlessly (and accidentally) knocking the plate and napkin on the floor under her chair. The real crime was that I paid four dollars for that bagel. If you are offended by something, be offended by that.

Can you please explain to me exactly why the trash under her chair offended you so much? And why you felt it was necessary to use a tone which I would characterize as “stern to bitchy”? As my friend informed you, we would have thrown the trash away when we left. Probably. I usually check the floor beneath my children before we leave an area..except at a restaurant, because that shit is just gross.

The scene of the crime. Trash not pictured.
The scene of the crime. Trash not pictured.

My daughter does not take criticism well. Who she get this from, I have no idea. It’s not like I cried for weeks (okay, months) after I got my first bad job performance review. She didn’t even make it to the trash can before her little face crumpled and she came over and hid her face behind my arm. “I’m sorry mommy,” she whispered. I felt a swell of indignation..who did you think you were, the Trash Police? Nobody makes my daughter cry! (but me when I tell her she can’t have Laffy Taffy for dinner…but that’s another story. )

Armed with the confidence of the self-righteous, I approached you, a deceptively normal looking bespectacled lady in a goofy white cap with a cell phone permanently attached like a giant goiter to your cheek. “Excuse me,” I said politely, and after you moved the cell phone-goiter back a fraction of an inch to indicate I had your attention (the nerve!) I suggested that you might want to address your concerns about trash disposal to adults in the future instead of terrorizing innocent children. “ You made my daughter cry,” I told you, expecting some remorse. Which I didn’t get.

“I’m sorry your daughter got upset,” you told me in a voice that clearly indicated you weren’t. Then, you informed me that you have four children, and that they “know better than to leave their trash on the floor.” Apparently I was neglectful by not monitoring the trash situation and telling her to throw it away myself. “That trash has been on the floor for a half an hour,” she informed me in disgust. “You weren’t paying any attention, sitting over there with your friend. She needed to throw that trash AWAY, and there was no reason she should have been upset by me telling her that. My children would not have gotten upset about that. ” This was not a real apology, but another indictment of my daughter. Compared to your children, my daughter is lacking not only in personal responsibility and cleanliness but also emotional resilience. What a marvelous mother you must be! Your children are so lucky you have taught them so well! My daughter and I are obviously inferior in every way.

If only I had actually voiced these sarcastic replies instead of gaping at you in horror and threatening (stupidly, I know) to tattle on you to the hockey rink decorum police. You were unfazed and jumped out of your seat. “Let’s go tell the rink manager about how you threw trash on the floor,” you snapped and headed off toward the rink office. Luckily, my friend Jen talked me down, or I would have ended up whining to some red-shirted pimple faced kid and humiliating myself. “She went against the mom code!” I can see myself saying plaintively. “She said I was a bad mom, and that my daughter is a slob! Then she made my baby cry, and she’s not even sorry! Can we please ban her from the upstairs lounge and end her reign of terror?” After gently informing me that I might be bat shit crazy, the rink manager would have suggested I go sit in the bleachers to cool down and leave the fighting to the hockey goons. Humiliation complete.

Here is the thing that really burns me, trash lady. During this entire exchange, you never once got off the phone. You passed judgment on me and my daughter with your cell phone pressed against your ear, occasionally making comments like, “I know!,” “Unbelievable,” and “That’s what I told her, “ to your invisible ( and i like to think, imaginary) friend. You never gave me the respect of your full attention. This drove me to approach you a second time, right before we left. By that time I had recovered my sarcasm.

“Do you see any other trash under the chair you want us to throw away before we leave?” I asked sweetly.

“Yes,” you replied. “You should clean up those crumbs. I have four kids, and they would never leave crumbs like that on the floor. They know better.”

Are you fucking kidding me? And to my credit, I did not say these words. I made a joke about bringing a vacuum cleaner with me everywhere to clean up after my kids, ha ha. You didn’t seem to think that was funny or far-fetched. As I write this, I wonder: do you bring your own vacuum cleaner with you everywhere you go? If so, game, set, and match to you, trash harpy.

I tried to respond, but unfortunately my brain seized, still stuck on the vacuum cleaner thing (a full size vacuum? A dustbuster?) and all I could get out was “You don’t even…..um…” which gave you the perfect opportunity to launch into the familiar tirade about how you have four kids (really? four?) and they would never leave such a mess behind, etc. etc. At which point I stopped being polite and my memory of events gets a little hazy.

I’m pretty sure I told you that you were the one with the problem, and that I felt sorry for your kids, and that you were a gargoyle-faced harpy with a demented soul and probably needed to be medicated..okay, that last one I just thought of now. But I wish I had said it. You were talking so loudly you probably wouldn’t have heard me anyway. I think the real loser here is your mystery phone “friend” who apparently had nothing better to do than listen to your real-time hockey rink sanitation drama.

Finally, my son, who had watched the whole event unfold with characteristic stoicism (some might call it apathy) actually tugged on my sleeve, and implored me to leave. ”Mom! She’s not worth it! Come on!” Stunned by the fact that my 13 year old was the voice of reason, I allowed him to pull me away.

The whole event made for interesting dinner table conversation that night. Jake and Anna were embarrassed. The only one who approved of my behavior was my hockey playing son, who thought I should have punched you in the nose. My eldest son mused, “I would have immediately walked away, and then thought of a million things I should have said afterward.” It seemed there was both censure and grudging admiration in his voice. I decided to ignore the censure and focus on the admiration. I was standing up for my children’s right to…leave their trash on the floor.

The brutal irony is that I was outraged by the fact that you, another parent, a stranger no less, ordered my kids to do something that I tell them, nag them, and beg them to do everyday: throw away their trash. Oh, and by the way, they completely suck at it. You are right: your children are better at cleaning up after themselves than mine, because a blind, incontinent, and deranged monkey would be better than my slovenly lot. I once saw my son spill a full bowl of cereal and milk on the living room floor, and then drape a dishtowel over the mess and tell me he “cleaned it up.” I like to think that they are more civilized in other people’s houses, because otherwise I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t get invited anywhere. But trash that has fallen under the chair in the hockey rink may not set off the same alarm bells for them that it does for you and your freakishly-neat-but-probably-doomed-to-a-lifetime-of-unhappiness children.

The real issue is not that you told my daughter to throw away her trash. It’s that you weren’t kind. You weren’t even polite. You were judgemental, disrespectful, and sanctimonious in your manner and your words. In retrospect, it is obvious to me that the trash simply provided an excuse for you to build yourself up by putting down my daughter and me. Unlike you, I stress kindness over neatness. I also stress respect- you may have noticed that my child immediately complied with your demand (or at least attempted to before she dissolved into tears). My children are slobs, but they are kind, well-adjusted, respectful slobs with excellent interpersonal skills. If your children follow your example, I doubt you can say the same about them.

You will be happy to hear that our unpleasant encounter provided a useful teachable moment for my children. My takeaway was this: Mean people are out there, and sometimes they will judge you and try to bring you down. Don’t let them. Be glad your mom is not one of those people. Don’t be one of those people.

Oh, and if trash falls on the floor, throw it away.

Nacho Libre, Fruit Snacks, and The Better Part of Valor

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Parenthood is fraught with difficult decisions. There are very few hard and fast rules, which is how kids end up with neck tattoos, pet boa constrictors and skinny jeans. Parenting is basically a never-ending, exhausting series of judgement calls, where we must weigh our children’s wants and our wants against the likelihood of neighbors calling the Social Services hotline. Should you allow your son to shoot his crossbow at the neighbor’s dog? Should you leave your younger children in the care of your 13 year old son even though he doesn’t know what month comes after February? Should you allow your children to use their metal music stands as fencing foils in the dining room? (Answers: no; why not?; and it depends on the terms of your rental insurance.) So many questions…

Recently, my husband scored tickets to the concert of the century: The Vetaran’s Day Concert for Valor in Washington DC. Bruce Springsteen! Dave Grohl! That British guy from the Daily Show! Freedom may not be free, but sometimes concert tickets are, and the best way to honor our veterans might involve rocking out to Metallica. Plus, it sounded way more fun that our usual Veterans’ Day activity of watching people visit military graveyards on TV. Even the most militant anti-American Islamist extremist would be hard pressed to turn down tickets to see Bruce Springsteen for 0 dollars. In fact, that would be a pretty effective anti-terrorism strategy.

We were giddy with excitement. But, then began to wonder, should we bring the children? Like all good parents, we did some research to inform our decision: Was it free? Yes. Was food allowed? Yes. Would we have to find and pay a baby-sitter exorbitant amounts if the children stayed home? Yes. Decision made.

As veteran parents, we knew this was a high-risk operation. The problem with this maneuver was the timing. Any evening event with children carries the distinct possibility of crankiness, hunger, and frequent complaints about pain in various body parts (feet, tummy, pinky finger, etc.) In addition, there was the morning after to consider.

Veteran’s Day often falls mid-week. Everyone knows important holidays are celebrated either immediately on or after a weekend, to allow for three full days of revelry. Only lame holidays are celebrated mid-week, like Boss’s Day, Lyndon Baines Johnson Day (Wednesday, August 27th, in case you’re wondering) and the extremely confusing “Maundy Thursday” (pronounced “Monday Thursday”). If you’re honoring the Man, lame presidents and foot-washing, go ahead and do it Tuesday-Thursday. A holiday for Veterans deserves better, however.

Once the decision was made, it was time to implement standard TTP (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures). We have summarized our experience below in order to help advise those who may undertake similar missions in the future.

1. WEAR COMFORTABLE GEAR


Preparation is key to the success of any operation. Standard-issue zip-up hoodies should be tied apron-style around waists. Lace-up sneakers are key. Heading out on a challenging family assignment is not the time for your daughter to try out her sparkly new Sketchers. We found this out the hard way, when ten minutes after leaving the car, Anna insisted on being carried on her brother’s shoulders. Luckily, she was immediately distracted by an unexpected celebrity sighting. Jack Black – that’s right, Nacho Libre himself – walked by us as we passed the reflecting pool in front of the capitol building. “I love you Jack Black!” I called out to the back of his pea coat. He raised a hand in acknowledgment. The moment provided our mutinous troops with a crucial boost in morale.

2. COURAGE IS GREAT, BUT WARS ARE WON OR LOST DUE TO LOGISTICS

When we arrived at security, the guards warned us that “Once you’re in, you stay in,  ” furthermore, “there’s no food in there.” It was like Hunger Games with a funky base line. I gathered the children close to me, having gleaned from my dystopian novels that the hungry often prey on the weak. Luckily, experience has taught me that whether your mission is brief or extended, you should carry 3-4 snacks with you at all times. In particular, you cannot overestimate the restorative properties of gummy-based snack foods. In this particular situation, I fortified my pack with sun-chips, raisins, goldfish crackers, granola bars, and the nutritiously named “fruit snacks.” However, the dinnertime hour complicated matters, as my husband refused to enter the zone without sandwiches. That brings us to TTP#3:

3. DO NOT SPLIT FORCES WHEN IN CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY

Or, in this case, rock and roll royalty. My husband, not being a fan of gummy-based nourishment, told me: “The oldest boy and I will find dinner. The young ones will only slow us down. Take them inside and and set up a defensive perimeter.”

I thought about the twelve thousand people inside the gates.

“I don’t think we should split up,” I told him.

“Just keep your phone on and answer it when I call,” he told me confidently. “We’ll find you”

I doubted it, but sometimes it’s just easier not to argue, especially when food is involved.

And that’s when things went FUGAZI.

4. RETREAT WHEN NECESSARY

As I flashed my blue tickets to the various security personnel, I noticed very few children, if any. I wasn’t sure if that should worry me or make me feel like the coolest mom ever. Maybe both? The mostly young-adult crowd was milling around in what seemed to be a giant holding pen. As we neared the stage, we were stopped by a beefy security guard wearing a “volunteer” yellow sash, who informed us that the gate to the area in front of the stage was now closed.

Jostling now began in earnest as people tried to elbow their way up to the front to plead their case. The bottleneck grew ripe with the scents of liquor-breath, Marine sweat, and desperation as people continued to stumble and shove their way toward the gate. I can be just as determined as any drunk seaman or whored-up congressional aide, and I knew if I focused the laser-like intensity of my formidable nagging ability onto Mr. Yellow Sash, he would let us in. Oh yes, he would.

But the kids were anxious. Maybe even scared. Danny’s first and Anna’s only (dear God, please) encounter with drunk Marines was going poorly. One look at their pleading eyes, and I knew what I had to do. Sighing in defeat, I grabbed their hands, turned around and unapologetically shouldered my way out. I stepped on toes. I swung my backpack like a scythe through the crowd. I kneed some unfortunate seated soul – who may or may not have been a decorated combat veteran – in the head, stomped on a blanket and kicked a smartphone. Hell hath no fury like a mother denied access to the front section of a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Once we broke free from the crush, we found a strategic spot to set up camp in the back of the holding pen and hunkered down with some pita chips and Uno cards to await reinforcements. Seventeen dropped calls, two slightly hysterical messages and 7 unsent texts later, the children began to question my leadership and lack of sandwiches. I assured them the communication failure was not my fault, but after my 8th “WTFRU” text bounced back unsent, they became particularly concerned about the sorry state of our supply chain, and we decided to pack up and take the metro home.

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Adrift on a Coast Guard Academy blanket in a sea of drunken Springsteen fans.

 

4. ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY

Just as we initiated our retreat protocol, Eric and Jake miraculously appeared. They had just come from the stage area, which they entered without problem through another gate. I then got a lecture on the importance of answering my phone (I tried!!), leaving non-hysterical voice messages (again, I tried!!) , and the criticality of specific directional instructions. (“‘Turn left at jumbotron’ means nothing when there are four jumbotrons!”)

“We were just THIS CLOSE to Metallica!” Eric informed me. “Did you show the security guard your ticket? Why are you way back here?”

Thus, the next hour was spent with me calmly explaining how I had tried repeatedly to contact him, made decisions for the benefit of the children, and that by the way, he may remember that I TOLD HIM splitting up was a bad idea in the first place.

5. ENJOY THE SHOW

About an hour later, the sandwiches were eaten, healthy blood sugar levels were restored, and Eric and I were on speaking terms again. Finally, the Jumbotron flickered on, and someone onstage (we assumed, since we couldn’t see the stage) exhorted the crowd to “make some noise!”

After the obligatory screaming, Mayor Vincent Grey appeared on the Jumbotron to welcome the crowd, make an ill-timed bid for DC statehood, and deliver an unintentional warning about the dangers of too much botox. “What’s wrong with his face, mom?” asked Danny. So many, many things.

Then, Dave Grohl took the stage, and we forgot all about our operational difficulties. We crooned along to “Here Comes My Hero,” bobbed our heads to the the Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy”, and played some mean air ukelele to the Zac Brown Band. The children were riveted by the stories of bravery, heroism, and yes, valor that lit up the Jumbotron in between sets. The crowd around us watched and applauded reverently, and my 10 year old, who doesn’t cry when he gets whacked in the head with a hockey stick, teared up several times.

Things went downhill again with Carrie Underwood singing some crap about someone going off into the sunset. Danny showed his opinion by laying facedown on the blanket during her set. “I’m not tired, mom. This music just sucks.”

But then, in a bowel-shaking panzer blitz of heavy metal fury that made my 42 year old husband squeal like a pre-teen at a Taylor Swift concert, Metallica took the stage. After a little shock and a LOT of awe, I knew it was time to declare victory and leave.

We made our exit to the strains of Rihanna’s “Diamonds in the Sky,” skipping both the traffic and Eminem’s “f-bomb” laced performance.

In our post-operation debrief, it was unanimously decided that the outing was a success, resulting in minimal losses (a few UNO cards) and a 100% increase in awareness of the awesomeness of America’s veterans and James Hetfield’s thrashing guitar. What could be more patriotic than the Metallica frontman’s incomprehensible roaring over the fruited plains of Lars Ulrich’s pounding drums? Nothing, that’s what. When I heard the opening riff to “Enter Sandman,” I was proud to be an American, and so were my kids.

Mission accomplished.

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A Letter to Baby Callahan on her 17th Birthday

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Dear Baby C.,

Seventeen years (and a few months) ago, a bunch of ladies sat around a country club one afternoon and helped your mama prepare for your arrival by drinking mimosas, eating macaroons, and concocting birthday greetings for the first 30 years of your life.

You are a little over halfway through these yearly messages, and hopefully you have benefited from our nuggets of wit and wisdom. I imagine the tone and content of these letters changed over the years as well, from infancy: “I can’t stress this enough: do NOT eat your boogers!” to childhood: “Do NOT sit down in a port a potty, ever!” to adolescence, “Do NOT, under any circumstances, date the drummer in a rock band!” And now, you are at the cusp of adulthood, and it is my turn to offer my advice.

Assuming nobody has messed with the time-space continuum, the year is 2032, and everyone has long forgotten about the midterm elections, the ebola crisis, and the other petty problems of 2015. If pop culture and young adult literature have taught us anything about the future, your world is a bleak and torturous nightmare, possibly infested with zombies and/or evil robot clones. Fortunately, there should also be at least two strong, hot young men with great abs and unexplained powers to help you navigate this dystopian morass (and battle for your heart).

As you go about your day, sourcing food and shelter, dispatching slavering evil creatures and rebuilding society, keep in mind the following advice. Back in the day, these tips helped me get through the challenges of the Before Times, when people lived above ground and didn’t barter for food.

1. Appreciate Your Family

Sure, your parents might bug you, especially when they refuse to decapitate a roving monster or barbecue the nutria you caught for dinner. Maybe you don’t want them telling you how to wear your new rabbit pelt or how to use your budding supernatural powers. But, they are still your parents, and if you mouth off to them, storm off on a looting spree and then come home to find they were eaten by zombies, you will be really sorry. Words can be weapons, so wield them wisely. They have sacrificed a lot for you and worked hard to keep you from getting snatched by the slavering hordes. Be nice to your parents.

2. Friends Can Be Family

Whether you are lopping off heads, gathering intelligence for the rebel insurgency, or on a quest for a magical amplifier or other valuable artifact, life can be pretty lonely. Don’t ever be afraid to put yourself out there! When trying to make friends, be your best self. If you are kind, fun, funny, and good with a sword, good people/aliens/shapeshifters/faeries will be drawn to you. With good friends at your side, the apocalypse will suck a little less.

3. Don’t Listen to the Trolls

Don’t waste time with Negative Nellies or Fair-weather Friends! The first time a so-called friend tries to eat your brain, traps you in the aetheric otherworld, or suggests that you aren’t thin enough to be a cheerleader, hurl them into the Pit of Fire, Cold Abyss or whatever Dark Realm is most convenient. Life is too short to bother with these folks, and they don’t deserve you.

4. You, Woman, Can Do Anything!

If you are not afraid to work hard and make sacrifices, you will be successful, whether your goal is to overthrow the Robot Clone Overlord or earn the respect of the aloof guy with the drool-worthy abs. Even if you don’t feel confident, ACT confident, and that Overlord will think twice before nuking your village shantytown. Fake it ’til you make it!

And now a word about gender politics: Women have come a long way since the Before Times, when we were underrepresented in pretty much every arena and shackled by society’s limited idea of femininity. Now, you can wield that katana, crossbow, throwing star, or really well-constructed argument with authority. You will fight and you will win, and if your hair gets messed up or you get alien guts on your dress, nobody will care. In fact, the boys of the future will find alien goo an attractive accessory to any outfit and will flock to you in droves when you are fresh from the battlefield, triumphantly brandishing your bag of trophy heads. Boo-yah!

5. Take Care of You

Believe it or not, even with all the advances in medicine, and your surety to the contrary, you are not invincible. I will say it again: You. Are. Not. Invincible. Take your longevity pills. Eat healthy and nutritious food replacement bars and do NOT loot the abandoned Cheet-oh factory. Loot something wholesome, like a silo of grain or a warehouse of granola bars. Don’t skimp on your daily training and agility exercises, because you only get ONE body (unless you join the Evil Clone Conspiracy) and in order to effectively defend your settlement and live to fight another day, you must keep your body strong. Also, beware! There may be some shady sprites who offer you mysterious food, drink, or other suspicious substances, but here is some more good advice that has not lost its relevance in 60 years: Just Say No. If all the other Leaders of the Insurgency jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? No. Don’t bow to peer pressure! Avoid the frat boys with their Jaegermeister shots (they still exist, right?) and anyone else who tries to steer you down the wrong, unhealthy path.

I hope that these five tips prove useful to you in your 17th year on this earth. May you crush the zombie hordes, create a brave new world under the sea, and lastly and most importantly, find happiness with that handsome, brooding guy you have your eye on. Because whether the year is 2014 or 2032, love is the key to happiness. Love, and rock-hard abs.

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Family: A Step by Step Guide

Die Mannschaft*: They Came, They Saw, They Played Foosball

Recently, my family and I participated in an exchange program with a family from Aachen, Germany. While hosting an exchange family provides a convenient excuse to avoid unpleasant activities like parent-teacher conferences, going to the gym, and doing housework, it is a big commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. From the moment they arrive to the moment they depart, you are responsible for housing, feeding, and entertaining your international visitors. This means cooking, cleaning, and wearing pants almost all the time.

This commitment, while rewarding, is not for the faint of heart. Like any endeavor, success can be achieved through this simple formula: 75% preparation, 25% proper beverage consumption (equal parts strong coffee and red wine). Here are some tips and observations from my own recent experience to help you decide if this experience is for you.

*Die Mannschaft” is not a Hans and Frans anatomical reference, but the actual name of the German World Cup Team. A google search of this term reveals that it means “crew” or “team” in German. And so, in our household, our German crew became known as “Die Mannschaft,” as in “Only 3 more days until Die Mannschaft,” and “Die Mannschaft is going to rock this party!” etc. The nickname fizzled after the arrival of the Germans themselves, however, because nobody wanted to explain the meaning of “man shaft” in English and why it was funny.
 

Step 1- Preparation: How Do I Create the Illusion of Competence?

If you are participating in an organized exchange program through a local school or other organization, the planning will start months before the arrival date of your guests. It is never too early to start preparing a list of reasons you cannot attend these frequent meetings (family emergency, cougar attack, bunion surgery, etc). While your more conscientious friends attend the meetings and keep you informed of important decisions, you can use that time to obsessively de-clutter and reorganize your household space to accommodate your visitors. Be practical- moving the drum set into the spare bathroom may provide more living space for your guests, but may not be conducive to their good hygiene. Less considerate guests might “rage poop” in your snare drum.

Many innocent flowers were harmed in the making of these centerpieces.

Several weeks before your guests arrive, you will likely start to receive hundreds of emails a day from the other participants in the exchange. For example, one string may enumerate exactly how many family members will be attending the Steeplechase event, which family members they are, what kind of meats they prefer, and their zodiac signs. Carefully delete each email without reading them as all this unnecessary information may well make your head explode.

Be sure to continue to check your email regularly for Sign-up Genius lists for the many upcoming events. This way, you can quickly sign up for “7 GALLONS OF ORANGE JUICE” instead of getting stuck with “DECORATIONS” and consequently spending 4 hours arranging mums on your dining room table for the Welcome Breakfast.

Consider learning the language of your guests by attending classes or renting a CD or DVD from the library such as the one pictured here:

Ach du Lieber! Why is this kid so weird looking?
Ach du Lieber! Why is this kid so weird looking?

If you are too busy to attend classes, or are too put off by the DVD cover picture of the strange rodent haired boy and his zombie-eyed dog, there are alternative ways to expose your child to the German language. Weeks before the Germans arrived, several times a day, I would shriek “Zee Chermins arr Komink!” in a highly realistic German accent (derived from years of playing Castle Wolfenstein as a child). These shrill warning cries habituated my children to the unique cadence of fake German language, and may also have earned our family some special attention from the neighborhood watch.

Another good idea is to collect some pamphlets and information about your hometown (I suggest posing as a guest at a nearby hotel and stealing them from the lobby). You can then organize your materials thematically in an appropriately decorated 3-ring binder with plastic paper protectors, and bring it to a weekly meeting to share with the other participants. Although you may earn the admiring moniker of “binder lady” for the remainder of the exchange program, I think it’s better than “crazy shrieking lady.”

Looks like somebody is giving Binder Lady a run for her money, eh??
Looks like somebody is giving Binder Lady a run for her money, eh??

Next, as the arrival date (“G” Day) approaches, you may want to whip up some make-ahead meals to freeze. They will be expecting typical American fare, so be sure to cook with lots of hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, and ketchup. Auf wiedersehen, low cholesterol!”

Lastly, the day before your guests arrive, take care of all those last minute details. A small thing such as putting clean sheets on the spare bed can make your tired international travelers feel more at home. If in the process of putting clean sheets on the spare bed you realize you don’t have a spare bed, let alone a spare bedroom, don’t panic! You still have time to hold a “Hunger Games” style competition amongst your children to decide which budding Katniss gives up their room.

Step 2- Arrival: How Do I Welcome Die Mannschaft ?

Create a colorful and welcoming sign to hold up at the airport on the day your German guests arrive. If your son only gets halfway through stenciling “Willkommen” before losing interest and going off to have a basement pillow fight with his fellow fifth graders, you can always pick up a few balloons at the airport store to welcome your guests. Then, if your mannschaft is delayed in customs, your son can play the well-known game of “Hit the Balloon with your Head until it Detaches from its String and Floats up to the Airport Ceiling Causing a Minor Security Incident” while waiting at the gate. But, don’t worry! There is sure to be a creepy foreign guy there, who will offer to hoist a fifth grader onto his shoulders to retrieve the escaped balloon. Auf wiedersehen, childhood innocence!

When you finally find your Germans amid the throng of tall, fair, sensible-shoe wearing folk, give them a good old-fashioned American hug and handshake and get the hell out of there, in case that creepy guy comes back and tries to put one of your kids on his shoulders again.

Your Germans have likely been up for 24 hours, are exhausted, and will probably want to go home and relax. Do not allow them to do this. First, show them around your house and offer them some refreshments. Now is a good time to pull out some of those fried ketchup waffles that you whipped up last week. Next, insist on taking them to a local high school football game and point out the typical American highlights of the marching band, dance team, and cheerleaders. Our German 11 year old, Valentin, was so impressed by this experience that he passed out in the bleachers.

Step 3- Finding Common Ground: Getting Comfortable With Die Mannschaft

By Day 2, you will probably be in full-blown panic mode, as you realize that you have two strangers living with you for the next week. Your panic may lead you to believe that every the time they are speaking their language, they are probably talking about how small and messy your house is, how nonsensical American football is and how disgusting your ketchup waffles were. Of course, you are just being paranoid! Our German visitors, Clemens and Valentin were kind, mild-mannered, and requested seconds of our fried ketchup waffles. In fact, after a few days, we realized we had so much in common they started to feel like an extension of our family. For example:

1. MIDDLE SCHOOL ANGST: Both Clemens and I have 13 year old sons in with first names starting with “J.” and who are afflicted with the unfortunate condition of adolescence, or in Clemens words, “puberty brain confusion.”

2. THE SIMPSONS: We learned early on that our families shared an appreciation/obsession with The Simpsons. It turns out that watching Homer make his “space-age, out of this world moon waffle,” is funny in any language, so evenings were spent enjoying the antics of the hilarious four-fingered folk and their satirical take on American culture.

3. AMBASSADOR OF FOOS: The intercultural value of Foosball cannot be overestimated, as we found out when our Foosball table became the center of social activity in the house. Danny learned his one and only German phrase at the Foosball (or “Kicker’ in German) table: “Gut Gemacht!” or, “Good Job!,” There was a lot of “Gut Gemacht-ing” in the house that week, as fathers, sons, and even my daughter relished this non-verbal game of skill and eye-hand coordination. Occasionally, even I was honored to be called up to handicap Danny and give the other team a fighting chance.

4. THE HOUND: Our dog is the least appreciated pet in the universe..by us. Valentin fell in love with our sweet-natured golden retriever, probably because Bingo never ate his throw pillows or shoes or led him on a merry, poop-filled chase through the neighbor’s backyard. We tried to convince Clemens and Valentin to take Bingo with them when they returned to Germany, but Clemens thought that a barking suitcase might arouse the suspicions of the Customs officials. Particularly after “Balloongate.”

Step 4- Activities:  Die Manschaft is Here, Now What Do I Do?

Your Germans have arrived safely and you have successfully developed an intercultural camaraderie- Congratulations! However, you can’t just sit around on your laurels all day playing Foosball and watching the Simpsons (although your 10 year old son may strongly disagree with you). Many exchange programs will encourage you to take your Germans along with you on your daily activities to experience authentic American life. However, your visitors probably didn’t spend thousands of dollars in airfare to watch your son’s flag football game and ride shotgun while you take the dog to the vet; chances are your guests want to see some of the sights. Here are some suggestions:

Die Mannschaft at the National Aquarium in Baltimore
Die Mannschaft and friends at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

AQUARIUMS: According to our Clemens (who is a college professor and thus likely a reliable source), aquariums are illegal in Germany for ethical reasons, so many Germans may be interested in viewing some of the verboten fish in captivity. The National Aquarium in Baltimore was a big hit with many of our German visitors, and we all thought the aquatic creatures looked pretty happy (except for the sand sharks, which looked mostly hungry.)

MUSEUMS: If you live near Washington DC, there are a plethora of places to visit, and lucky for you and your guests, most of them are FREE. Looking at insects/paintings/airplanes for hours makes people (especially your children) both hungry and acquisitive, so be warned that your savings on admission will be offset by the hundreds of dollars you will shell out in the cafeteria and gift shop.

TOURS: Most cities, even the lame ones like Milwaukee, have some kind of tour, be it historical, ghostly, beer, or duck. We took our Germans on an evening ghost tour of Old Town Alexandria, and they seemed to enjoy it. Although we didn’t see any actual ghosts, perhaps due to the pouring rain, we all agreed that it was better than Milwaukee.

PARTIES: Some participants in your exchange program may be kind (and/or insane) enough to invite everyone over for a potluck meal or dessert. This gives the adults a chance to mingle while the children create a “Lord of the Flies” scenario in the basement and engage in meaningful forms of nonverbal communication such as pelting each other with small plastic balls. On the final day, our exchange program went all out and rented a local hall for a Halloween-themed farewell party, where we and our German friends enjoyed the musical stylings of Rick James and quaffed pitchers of beer, while the children pelted each other with rolls of toilet paper.

Step 5- Departure: Life Without Die Mannschaft

Last photo op before Die Mannschaft takes to the skies!
Last photo op before Die Mannschaft takes to the skies!

Finally, the day will come when it’s time to say goodbye to your visitors.  You will be sorry to see them go, not only because you got attached to them during their brief stay, but also because their departure means facing the 5 foot high piles of laundry, stacks of dirty dishes, and colonies of ants that have surely infested your home during the past week. If you are lucky, like us, your wonderful intercultural experience will be followed by a five day weekend, allowing you to recuperate, walk around the house in your underwear, and do laundry.

A Final Thought

I hope these tips have been instructive for you in your decision to host a German (or other international) family! We were so grateful to have had an educational and intercultural experience with some truly wonderful people, since surely Germany, like America, has its fair share of asshats. Possibly, exporting asshats is as verboten in Germany as keeping fish in captivity? Or, maybe we just got very lucky. Either way, we are looking forward to playing foosball and watching the Simpsons with our new friends when we travel to Germany in the spring!

Gut Gemacht, Boys!
Gut Gemacht, Boys!

Confessions of a Paranormal Romance Junkie

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Come to mama, tattooed demon guy.

Chances are that someone you know is a romance junkie. This condition, which usually manifests itself in hefty consumption of novels whose covers feature the naked, sculpted male torsos of brawny Scottish lairds, sexy assassins, and badass tattooed warriors (see illustration), is more widespread that you might imagine. There are 29 million of us out there, living outwardly normal lives while secretly indulging our unseemly cravings with titles like “Dark Temptations,” or “Betrayed by Desire.”

Even more embarrassing to my family is my particular addiction to paranormal romance novels, which feature titles such as, “Dark Temptations of the Frost Giant,” and “Betrayed by the Troll King’s Desire.” My 13 year old son hates the fact that we share a Kindle account because my books show up in his library. “Ewwww! Mom! You downloaded ANOTHER naked guy book? I accidentally opened the last one and the stuff in there is DISGUSTING.”

My son is not the only one offended by Unholy Demon Troll Love. The literary world, friends, neighbors, strangers in the supermarket, even the guy reading the latest Nicholas Sparks book, all smugly belittle the Paranormal Romance genre. To the world at large, PNR occupies a spot somewhere between surfing midget porn on the internet and stalking 1980s celebrities (oh, Nancy McKeon, what’s become of you?).

How did a former editor of a high school literary magazine, aspiring teen poet, college graduate, Master’s Degree recipient and mother of three plummet to the bottom of the literary hierarchy?

It all started with vampires.

Gorgeous. Tortured. Aloof. Artfully mussed hair. Edward Cullen from “Twilight” was so much like the boys I crushed on in high school I was instantly hooked. Not only was he tragically noble and HAWT, he also had super-powers, which I’m fairly sure my high school crush boys lacked (although one of them was really good at basketball). Add into the mix the thirst for blood as a stand-in for sexual desire (“a metaphor!” crowed my inner English student) and I was hooked.

I was like you once, all judg-y and superior. Romance novels were for the unwashed masses who bought their jeans at Wal-Mart, ate Cheetos, and named their cars. I was a cum-laude graduate of a prestigious college, writer of papers such as “Ethnic Conflict in Former Yugoslavia: The Perils of Nationalism,” and veteran of various book clubs. A voracious reader, I prided myself on having worked my way through all the Penguin classics, marveling at the wit of Austen, the atmospheric rendering of the Brontes, and the tragic beauty of Hardy. I savored the maze-like plotting of Dickens and dismissed Edith Wharton as second-rate. That’s right- I was a totally pretentious book snob.

And then, one day, my curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a copy of “Twilight” at TJMax. I only wanted to see what all the fuss was about so that I could scoff about it knowledgeably at the next book club meeting. By chapter 3, my inner scoffer went silent as I entered a blissful state I had previously associated only with Jane Austen and dark chocolate. The world fell away and I was completely enveloped in the story of the two protagonists as they each battled their mutual attraction, weathered the disapproval of their friends, and navigated the social pitfalls of a small town and its lurking, otherworldly dangers.

I was hooked.

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Edward, my first paranormal dreamboat, seems a little wussy now compared to tattooed demon guy.

Soon, I discovered that there was a whole genre of darker, more explicit vampire literature for grown-ups. I lost hours to the mind-reading Sookie Stackhouse, days to the coyote shaper-shifter Mercy Thompson, and weeks to the dark, tortured demonic confections of Gena Showalter (a favorite: Aeron, keeper of the Demon of Wrath. Who knew wrath could be so sexy?).

Like any addict falling down the rabbit hole of addiction, I was constantly adjusting my parameters. Vampires, werewolves and demons were fine, but I would NEVER stoop to read books about faeries! Until I found the “Fever” series by Karen Marie Moning I never knew faeries could be so bad-ass! Books about time-traveling Scottish highlanders were completely ridiculous though…except for the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. And, dragons? Pu-LEEZ…until Thea Harrison changed my mind. Now, there is no supernatural creature I draw the line at. Harpies. Gryphons. Angels…I just read my first troll book the other day. And I’m not at all ashamed.

Here’s the thing: believe it or not, many paranormal romance books are Enough with the smut-shaming! Often a book with a steam cover also happened to be eloquently written and meticulously researched and plotted, featuring fully realized characters and relationships whose complexity is only enhanced by the fact that they turn into Hell Hounds or Demon Gnomes or whatever. In the spirt of non-shaming, I give you  four reasons to give PNR a chance.

1. The Kick-Ass Heroine

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Kate is ready to go a-slayin’.

Feminists, take note: in the PNR genre, the heroine is more likely to be a bad-ass warrior who slays and dismembers the bad guys than a bland princess who stands idly by One of my favorite characters, Kate Daniels, is a trained, katana-wielding killer who calmly butchers her way through 7 books of evil, slavering monsters while negotiating the romantic advances of the Beast Lord of post-apocalyptic Atlanta.

Similarly, in the books of Amy Raby and Robin LeFevers, fierce lady assassins inevitably find love amid the poisons, knives, and moral dilemmas of their trade. Warrior, assassin, or werewolf (all three?) these women are complex, likable and often flawed protagonists who provide wish fulfillment (she can start fires with her mind! ) while still allowing us to identify with them (she’s afraid of monkeys!)

2. The Super-Hot Supermen

Strong female characters require equally strong men (or shapeshifters, alien princes, demons, etc. ) Consider this description of Aiden, protagonist of Kresley Cole’s “Dreams of a Dark Warrior:”

He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, his build as massive as a bear’s…He possessed all his teeth, and they were even and white. His sun-darkened skin made his wintry gray eyes stand out.
Today, when he’d been in his berserkrage, those eyes had glowed like storm clouds ablaze with lightning.

Not only does this guy have ALL of his teeth, but he berserks like a boss. Tell me you don’t want to read more.

3. The World Building

Many PNF series are as intricately plotted and character-rich as any Russian masterpiece, drawing inspiration from Norse, Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythologies.

“The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.” So begins Kate Eliot’s Spirit Walker trilogy. She goes on to name-check the Celts, the “lying Romans,” and the Phoenicians while describing the birth of the universe. World creation is heavy stuff, and requires close reading and attention to detail, or you won’t know your djeliw from your factotem. Eliot’s universe is so richly imagined that you can practically smell the chamberpots and the dirigibles as heroine Cat Hassi Barahal chases her cold mage across the magical Steampunk tundra.

4. The Happy Ending

And no, I don’t mean Happy Ending in a creepy massage-parlor-under-the-bridge way. The Happily Ever After ending is crucial to the Paranormal Romance- it’s the payoff, the afterglow, the endorphin boost that mutes the brutal cacophony of real life and takes the edge off endless housework, homework frustration, burned meatloaf, dog vomit, and the fearful monotony of our inexorable march toward death. The HEA is the existential crack of the beleaguered housewife and mother.

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http://theartofnotwriting.tumblr.com for angry emails to Veronica Roth. I hate her!

Doesn’t the guarantee of the HEA make these books predictable? Hells to the yes! We Romance Junkies don’t like surprises! When a HEA is thwarted, usually by the gratuitous, tragic death of one of the love interests, the true RJ goes ballistic, perhaps even throwing her Kindle across the room and sending enraged emails to Veronica Roth demanding that she rewrite the ending of Allegiant OR ELSE.

Okay. So, maybe you’re not convinced. Perhaps you still believe PNR is either poorly written glorified porn, and/or escapist drivel. Porn-drivel has its place (50 Shades of Grey, anyone?) but you can read far and wide in the PNR genre and not encounter it. Now, if Christian Grey was a Beserker, or perhaps a Phillipine Aswang (see illustration below), maybe then it would have been worth reading.

The Phillipine Aswang. Jaunty, isn't he?
The Phillipine Aswang. Jaunty, isn’t he?

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