A Letter to Baby Callahan on her 17th Birthday


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

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.

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

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.

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?

PLEASE FOLLOW MY BLOG BY CLICKING ON THE “FOLLOW’ BUTTON IN THE LOWER RIGHT HAND CORNER OF THE PAGE! If you like to read, please STAY TUNED for reviews of the books referenced above, plus many more rants and raves of PNR romances both new and old, YA and smut-tastic, Steampunk and Medieval, Angelic and Demonic, Dystopian and Fairy-Tales-Retold, in my NEW BLOG, http://www.bewitchedbooks.com!

Girl Scout Encampment: A Glamping Good Time

As I explained in my last post, I am an ambivalent Girl Scout mom at best, largely because many of their activities involve nature, which I have often found dangerous and unpleasant.

And yet, on a Saturday morning in early September,  I somehow found myself loading sleeping bags and backpacks into the back of my friend’s SUV and heading down to Camp Merrick in rural Nanjemoy, Maryland for the annual ritual of “Encampment,” where (according to the National Girl Scout website) our girl scouts would “explore leadership, build skills, and develop a deep appreciation for nature.”

I had a feeling that after two days of camping, I was going to develop a deep appreciation for air conditioning and indoor plumbing. You may be asking yourself, why would I voluntarily go to a place I might have to poop in a bucket? The reason is simple, yet terrifying: Like so many other mothers, I live in fear of the wrath of my 7 year old daughter. More specifically, I live in fear of the crazy-eyed, shrieking banshee my ordinarily docile, sweet-tempered angel morphs into when she a) is asked to do household chores, or b) feels left out. I simply couldn’t face the tearful accusations and dramatic sobbing that would surely accompany the realization that all her friends went camping without her!

And so, we arrived at the campsite in the muggy heat of late morning to get our nature on. Fortunately, there was nary a bucket in sight, as the cluster of rustic cabins boasted indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, and electricity. It turns out this kind of camping, or “glamping,” as it is derisively called, hardly involves nature at all! I was immediately cheered by the prospect.

After we checked in and received our warnings from a harried Troop Leader about not disturbing the “ground moss,” we headed to our cabins, being careful to stay on the paved path.

“I guess they are really concerned about the environmental impact to the campsite,” I ventured to my friend and fellow Girl Scout mom Margaux, as we gave a wide berth to the yellow “CAUTION” tape ringing the large grassy area in front of the dining hall. “Worried about the ground moss and all.”

Margaux gave me a blank look. “She said ground WASPS.” On cue, I heard some disturbing buzzing from behind the caution tape.

On one hand, I am not fond of wasps, but one the other hand, it did provide a more reasonable explanation for keeping off the grass, and also proved my point about the perils of nature.

Camp Merrick, besieged by ground wasps.
Camp Merrick, besieged by ground wasps.

When we arrived at the cabin, we claimed our bunks, deposited our gear, and familiarized ourselves with our surroundings. Ice-cold air wafted sweetly out of a huge AC unit by the door. Two large fans whirred overhead around industrial size light fixtures. On either side of the room stood four sturdy wooden bunks beds, topped with green plastic mattresses and sprinkled with multicolored evidence of previous campers. The graffiti ranged from inane (“I love Kenny,”) to political (“Save The ta-tas!”) to plaintive (“I need a date,”) to inappropriate (use your imagination). Already this trip was proving to be more educational for my daughter than I ever imagined.

Cabin graffiti provided some educational fun during free time.
Cabin graffiti provided some educational fun during free time.

Next, our fabulous, hardworking troop leaders Jen and Christal distributed our “Team Olaf” name tags. Having never seen the movie “Frozen,” I was confused about why our name tags featured a picture of a slightly deranged, hillbilly snowman. I could, however, appreciate the irony of this year’s “Frozen” Encampment theme, as it was one of the hottest September days on record.

What does one do at Encampment? You may be surprised. The following activities were led by enthusiastic and energetic Girl Scouts Cadettes who didn’t seem to notice the 100 degree heat, profane graffiti, or walnut-sized wasps dive-bombing their heads.  This meant our main responsibilities as parent chaperones were to complain about the heat, make snarky comments, and wait for the day to end.

Are we having fun yet?
Are we having fun yet?


The girls giggled their way through various animal-named poses, after which they enjoyed strangely bitter snow cones flavored with either sugar-free cherry syrup or cough medicine. A sticky red film soon coated the girls clothing, shoes, and floor, making the rec hall look like the scene of a massacre littered with cone shaped cups.


The girls developed their all-important rock-painting skills, after which they made a useful cotton-ball (“snowball”) launcher out of foam, duct tape, and a balloon. Then the older girls scouts taught them various educational songs. One particularly cheery song  seemed to be about lady who jumped out a window after her house caught fire (“Jump, lady, Jump!…Splat!”)

Watch out! She has a snowball launcher and she's not afraid to use it!
Watch out! She has a snowball launcher and she’s not afraid to use it!


We lined up for a “Frozen” themed meal of disturbingly named “Troll Stones” in “Oaken’s Secret Yoohoo Sauce.” I was relieved to see the troll stones resembled meatballs, and were quite tasty, as far as troll stones go.

Disturbing dinner menu.
Disturbing dinner menu.


All the troops converged around the flag in the center of camp to trade pins. Amidst the cooling evening breeze and the soft buzzing of ground wasps, our girls exchanged their “Olaf” buttons for other Frozen-themed goodies, only occasionally stabbing themselves with the rusty metal pins.


The Girl Scout troops all gathered around a brightly burning campfire to roast..not S’mores, as you might expect, but…the American Flag. At first, this seemed to confirm my suspicion that the Girls Scout organization has a secret radical extremist agenda. I was relieved (yet also a little disappointed) to find out that a flag burning ceremony is a perfectly acceptable way to retire an old American flag. Or so they told us. In any case, someone had thoughtfully cut the flag into tiny squares, so every girl scout (and mom!) got her turn to burn a little piece of America.

Good Old Girl Scout Flag Burning
Good Old Fashioned Flag Burning
The remains of the Stars and Stripes.
The next morning

At some point during the day’s activities,  something strange happened. I started having a really good time. I stopped working on my exit strategy (hamstring injury? Heat stroke? Wasp attack?) and started truly enjoying myself. As the sweat dripped down my back during the “Frozen” singalong, I was reminded of the great lesson I learned while attending an all-women college so many years ago: when women are miserable together, friendships are forged. The muggy heat, the troll stones, the wasps, the barely controlled chaos of 200 pre-teen girls, and the surreal shock of taking part in a ritualized flag burning all combined to form a single shared experience that created a bond that would never be broken, at least until the next morning when we were rushing to get the hell out of there like the last chopper out of Saigon.

Later the next day, when we were home recuperating, I asked my daughter if she had a good time. She nodded enthusiastically.

“Would you go again next year?” I asked her.
“No.” she said promptly, and then went to reunite with her Kindle Fire. I think a weekend without technology cured her of the camping bug for good. Or maybe it was the wasps.

I’m not sure about “exploring leadership, building skills, and developing a deep appreciation for nature,” but we did have a damn good time, and in the process, developed a deep appreciation for each other. Thank you, Troop 729, for an absolutely wonderful Encampment.

I would totally go again next year. As long as there is air-conditioning.

Three Suggestions To Improve Your Girl Scout Troop Or, How Girl Scouts Can Save Us From the Future Zombie Apocalypse

I am quite possibly the least enthusiastic Girl Scout Mother ever. Don’t get me wrong – Scouting is a great and worthwhile activity. Any organization that teaches my kid how to be a better person AND supplies the world with delicious cookies is OK in my book. However, if the Girl Scouts truly want to get me on board, they need to make some changes ASAP.

1. Do Away With Patches

Iron-on, my ass. The iron, from whom I have been estranged since the Great Shirt-Melting Incident of 2002, is usually wielded only by my husband. However, his stupid job often gets in the way of his accomplishing unpleasant household tasks (how convenient!). So, it fell to me to prepare the Daisies vest last year, and things got UGLY. My attempt to iron on the patches was unsuccessful, probably because the iron hates me. My next (unsuccessful) attempt – and I am not proud of this – involved a glue stick. This led to my brilliant idea to use Gorilla Glue. I was just congratulating myself for my cleverness (Ironing is for SUCKAS!) when my daughter and I realized that the glue soaked through the fabric of the vest, making a sticky mess. And, if she hadn’t noticed glue bleeding through, it’s possible that Anna might have had a Daisy sash permanently adhered to her midsection – which would be an interesting conversation starter on the first day of 2nd grade. Or med school… On the up side, 6 of the12 patches stayed firmly attached.

Unfortunately, the six that fell off left gobs of crusty white glue behind, making the vest look like someone sponge-painted it with mucus: 

           Exhibit A.

My daughter was not happy with this situation. My impassioned speech about being a ‘“vest half-full” and not a “vest half-sponge-painted-with-glue-gobs” kind of person’ fell on deaf ears. It took several rolls of scotch tape, but we managed to get through the year. Luckily, I am a person who learns from her mistakes (and constant haranguing from her daughter). I am proud proud to say that this year, I paid the 20 dollars to have the new Brownie patches sewn on her new sash at the dry cleaners:

Exhibit B: Better or Worse?
Exhibit B: Better or Worse?

All of this unnecessary angst, glue, and expenditure could be avoided by simply doing away with the patches, not to mention the uniforms. Ugly brown or green polyester vests and sashes are so 1985. In this era of Katy Perry, I propose a tastefully sequined crop top or bedazzled camisole, preferably in a shade of pink, purple, or sky blue (perhaps all three?). Instead of a drab rainbow patch, lets have the garment BE THE RAINBOW. Girls love glitter.

2. No More Camping Trips

I don’t camp. Those of you have heard the story of the Great Oregon Fiasco of 2000 know why. If you haven’t heard the story, it involves 3 pounds of cherries, a bottle of chardonnay, a suspected serial killer, and an intensely distressed colon… In the woods.

Like many parents these days, I am a child of the 80s, when my only exposure to nature was via TV in the form of horror movies set by a lake, a deserted cabin, or pretty much anywhere nobody would hear you scream. From this, I learned to associate camping trips with dismemberment, giant snakes, intelligent and power-hungry frogs, and/or crazy serial killers. In short, I am not a fan.

Besides, I like my mod-cons. My giant, soft mattress with 5-6 fluffy pillows,white noise machine, electronic reader, seven different soaps, creams, lotions, and solutions I use in my bedding ritual…it all seems like it would make for a very bulky camping trip.

I mean, nature is great and all. I like to bird watch, for example. From inside the house. Or, I might sit on the back deck, listen to the trees rustle in the breeze as I enjoy a glass of wine. Which brings me to the real issue with the whole Encampment thing..it is my understanding that one of the few things that makes camping bearable is alcohol. After a beer or two, everybody is more relaxed and less worried about serial killers (except when they have to go to the bathroom at 2 AM with the aforementioned intensely distressed colon…but that’s another story). The Scout Guide contains baseless regulations like “the Girl Scouts prohibit alcohol use” and the even more ominous “Adults should be on their best behavior.” Really? Shouldn’t we save our best behavior for civilization? Isn’t the wild where we should get all, well, wild?

I propose a two-part alternative to the traditional camping trip, which I feel offers a more contemporary take on the Girl Scout Mission. A great way to “build girls of courage, confidence and character,” would be a Hunger Games/Divergent style Competition. Instead of the bland and boring weekend of “Encampment,” I suggest the far more compelling “Ass-Kickers Academy.” This week-long event would feature lessons in self-defense, combat, archery, sword-fighting, knife throwing and other useful (and totally awesome) skills. The AKA would empower girls to “develop their full potential” by preparing them for the coming zombie apocalypse, encounters with possible serial killers, or SEAL training. If movies, teen lit and TV shows are any indication, it’s a bleak future and our girls need to be ready for it.

The second part of my alternative plan is a spa day. After a week of hard training in the field, our little ass kickers will “discover the fun, friendship, and power of girls together” by getting Chocolate Oxygen Facials and Fire Opal Balancing Stone Massages. Obviously, mothers will be included in this activity. 

3. No More Cookie Sales

Girl Scouts, I have a bone to pick with you. Why on earth in this age of childhood obesity are you still pushing addictive-as-crack, fat-filled calorie bombs on our chubby, sedentary population? They are delicious, true. However, as someone who once inhaled an entire sleeve of thin mints while hiding in a bathroom stall, I can tell you with confidence that the road to hell and self-loathing is paved with delectable, wafer-thin chocolate cookies.

Here’s a healthy and economically smart alternative: why not sell those protein shakes famous people are always drinking on TV? Or even better, why not sell the Vitamix Professional Series 300 blenders so people can make their own protein shakes? My husband and his brother first saw this amazing machine at a Costco in Columbus, Ohio. Apparently, the salesman made a delicious orange sorbet out of some kale, chia seeds, cranberry juice, a beet, and an entire unpeeled banana. That is one badass blender. Plus, at $528.95, your girl scout only has to sell one or two to make some serious coin, instead of hawking 200 boxes of Samoas and Tagalongs at $4 each on local lacrosse fields and grocery store parking lots.

Some naysayers will opine that the Vitamix is too expensive to anchor a successful fundraising effort. These people obviously don’t live in Arlington, where people won’t think twice about throwing down mad cash for a contraption that will make them healthier and does not involve playing catch with bricks at the local CrossFit Gym. Consider this comment from a customer who turned to the Vitamix 300 after being unhappy with his previous blender: “My smoothies came out with lots and lots of bits, and I end up having to do a lot of chewing.” I bet this man who is too busy to do something as pedestrian as chew his food is from Arlington, and would probably be interested in buying a second Vitamix for his home office from a local girl scout troop! At the very least, let’s make the switch from selling cookies to something wholesome and trendy like giant sacks of kale, beets, or plankton.

Call me a visionary, or call me a kale-loving, dystopian-obsessed ironing-hating weirdo. Either way, when Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low first founded the Girl Scout organization in 1912, I’m sure she intended for it to evolve with the times and the role of women in society. If we truly want our daughters to become part of the GSA’s “long history of strong, independent heroines,” let’s stop giving them cookies and start teaching them how to disembowel deranged zombies with a katana. Or a Vitamix.

Party Planning Tips for the Lazy Hostess

Like all aspiring writers and bloggers, it is my dream to have an article published in the Huffington Post. I’ve never actually visited this website, but I envision it as the perfect meld of light entertainment (suggested by the ridiculous name“Huffington- which I’m convinced Ariana made up), and more serious, issue-driven reads (as suggested by the moniker“Post.”) I’ve noticed many popular articles and books have a number in the title, like “The 7 Habits of Effective People,” “Five Ways to Become a Published Writer” (wikihow.com) and “I Am Number Four.” So, I give you the following integer themed article. (Ariana, I’m sorry I made fun of your name. Please publish this!)



House parties are a great deal of fun, as long as they are at someone else’s house. Unfortunately, if you expect to keep getting invited to other people’s parties, you occasionally have to throw one of your own. Here are seven ways that you can a) prevent people from finding out that you live in squalor and b) throw a successful house party!

Helpful Hint #1: Do Not Have The Party At Your House.

House parties involve an alarming amount of work. If at all possible, try to have the party at an alternate location. For example, why not have your party at a local pool? I prefer pool parties because they really play to my strengths and skills as a hostess: not cleaning, not cooking, and not decorating. I simply show up at the pool at the required time with a “Happy Birthday” balloon and a cake, and let the lifeguards do the rest. These people are trained to SAVE LIVES. What could possibly go wrong? Maybe one party-goer eats too much junk food and pukes in the deep end (Jake’s 5th birthday). You just sit back, relax, and watch the boys in red shorts fish out those regurgitated cheese doodles. Or, perhaps a pre-schooler becomes traumatized after finding a dead rabbit in the diving well (also Jake’s 5th birthday). Again, not your problem. Mr. Red Shorts McSunscreen will get that floater out, give it a less-than-dignified burial behind the snack shed, and shock the chlorinated crap out of the water. If you are wondering what the children do in the meantime, you underestimate the fascination children have with vomit and dead animals. In the words of one 5 year old reveler: Best. Party. Ever.

Dead bunnies aside, there is one unfortunate event that can mar your pool party’s success: Rain. Recently, I rose early on the morning of my daughter’s 7th birthday party, looked at the dismal forecast, and was forced to make the difficult decision every pool party hostess dreads: take my chances with the rain, or relocate the party to my tiny, cluttered, dusty, dog-hair infested house, with its plague of mysterious, unpleasant odors. What to do?

Helpful Hint #2: Use The Internet

Whenever I need information or advice in a certain situation, I turn to the internet. This is how I found out that you should NOT put dishwashing soap in the dishwasher (totally counterintuitive). Actually, I learned that lesson the old fashioned way. More precisely, the internet is where I learned how to fix your dishwasher after you have put dishwashing soap in it (vinegar, if you’re wondering). If I’m confused about song lyrics, or the meaning of a TV series finale, or want to know why my dog is throwing up, or how many cups are in a pint, or how to make balloon animals, I turn to Google. After several hours of research, I realized that instead of spending the morning watching youtube videos on the hidden messages in “Lost” and how to make balloon animals, I should have been purchasing inexpensive gazebos and tables, renting an all-weather house at a local park, and creating fun indoor activities, crafts, and games. Instead, I opted to just move to party to my house and buy some extra beer.

Helpful Hint #3: Be Decisive.

Once the decision to relocate is made, it must be adhered to. Waffling will only lead to frequent and more desperate text messages and phone calls from confused partygoers. Your guests crave a strong leader, someone to rule with a festive iron fist: “The party will be at our house. Yes, I’m sure there is enough room. No, I don’t need you to bring anything, unless you have some inexpensive gazebos lying around. Also, all non-pregnant guests must consume a minimum of three alcoholic beverages” This last edict, if faithfully enforced, will prevent your guests from focusing on the balls of dog hair in the corners.

Helpful Hint #4: Be Realistic.

Try to look at your house with an objective eye.  It may not be party-ready, but focus on what you can accomplish in the next few hours. For example, I didn’t have time to steam clean the furniture, buy a new deck umbrella and sound system, or move to a bigger and nicer house. Instead, I scrounged up some throw pillows from the “give away” pile in the garage and placed them strategically over the largest and most ominous couch stains. Then, after wrestling unsuccessfully with the mammoth deck umbrella in an attempt to push it to the side, I decided to take the path of least resistance and crank it open to its full 10 foot span, which shielded the entire yard from rain and hid the moldy spots and bird droppings on top.

Colorful leis and face-painting will distract children and adult alike from the piles of dog poo in the backyard.
For a truly epic party, consider purchasing some (possibly illegal, depending which state you live in) fireworks. The spectacle and smell will surely make it a party to remember!

Helpful Hint #5: Camouflage and Accentuate.

Like a fat girl in a bathing suit, you should cover and draw attention away from those troublesome unsightly areas, while emphasizing your assets. To draw attention away from the waist-high weeds surrounding the front porch, I took advantage of my children’s current obsession with balloon animals by attaching a gaggle of multi-colored dogs, swans, flowers and swords to the porch railing with black electrical tape.  The latex swarm provided an interesting visual focal point for arriving guests that did not spark a conversation about weed killer. Even though some of the guests noted the unfortunate resemblance between the balloon swans and a certain part of the male anatomy, at least they weren’t looking at the weeds.

After some consideration, we relocated Danny’s balloon menagerie to the front porch for our guests to enjoy as they arrived.

Helpful Hint #6: Declutter.

Having a bunch of richer people with nicer houses over is the perfect excuse to take down your middle schooler’s 4th grade report card and the blue post-it notes your 6 year old daughter has used to label various household locations (FIREPLAC. DEK.) It’s also a great time to get rid of unsightly piles of books, papers, toys, and refuse. Try stuffing them in your children’s closets, under their beds, and other places your guests are not likely to visit, such as the bathtub.

Helpful Hint #7: Encourage Your Guests To Drink Heavily.

This is good advice for any party, gathering, or festival. Adults who consume several alcoholic beverages will be having too much fun to notice your house at all. Your party will be remembered for their crazy antics, instead of its unusual odor of sweaty, rancid pineapple.  

There you have it- 7 quick and easy tips to make your house party a success! Once you have completed these simple steps, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the party. And remember, the wonderful (though hazy) memories and partially deflated balloon-shaped penises will linger long after the last guest has departed.

The birthday girl and her friend enjoy the party.
Balloon swan or penis? You decide.
Balloon swan or penis? You decide.



Excerpt from “Memoirs of The Car Keys: An Unexpected Journey”

As Kristi Bader’s car keys, I have to be ready for anything. Most car keys spend most of their time crammed into dark, sticky pockets or purses with the usual crumpled gum wrappers, capless chapsticks, and broken hair clips. Not me. On any given day, you might find me in a rest stop bathroom off the New Jersey turnpike, on a shelf in the Housewares Department in Target, or even on the lam in Southeast DC with a joy-riding teenager. But my most recent adventure was my wildest yet. It all began on a sunny Friday morning at Boston Logan airport….

June 30th, 2014

It was ten AM, and we were walking to the gate to check Danny in for his flight back to DC. Well, Kristi was walking, I was swinging precariously from her index finger, when she stopped abruptly (I almost went flying!) and began rummaging through her purse, muttering about her cell phone.

Soon, we were running through the airport, out into the bright sunlight of the parking lot, and back to the car.
With a sigh of relief, Kristi quickly located the cell phone, which in another desperate bid for freedom had slipped into the crevice between the passenger seat and the console. It is said that this crevice marks a portal to another dimension, and the cell phone is ceaseless in its attempts to escape through it. But that’s another story.

Cell phone safely in hand, Kristi surveyed the thigh-high ocean of crap in the cabin of the minivan thoughtfully. She unearthed an empty bag with “Rehoboth Beach” stitched on the side, brushed off the crushed pretzels and stale raisins stuck to it, and filled it with selected items: a small bag of Pirate’s Booty, a half-full bottle of water, a dog-eared copy of “Football Nightmare,” by Mike Lupica and a partially squished pack of gum. She then shut the door and began the painstaking car-locking process.

Kristi is a Serial Button Pusher. If pressing a button once will lock the car, then pressing it repeatedly must really, really lock the car, she reasons (or so I imagine). Unfortunately, her husband insisted on procuring a remote-start option that is linked to the “lock” button. Pressing the button once will lock it. Pressing it twice will lock it even better (or so Kristi thinks.) Pressing it three times will start the engine. Pressing it four times will…actually, I don’t know. In any case, I lost track of how many times she pressed the “lock” button that day. Several trips back to the car (to turn off the engine) later, Operation Car Lock was a success, and she tossed me in the Rehoboth Beach bag over her shoulder and headed back into the airport.

At first, I wasn’t worried. As far as I was concerned, being in any bag- purse, shoulder bag, beer cooler- lowered the risk that I would get left next to the Mentos and Tic Tacs in the checkout line at the airport store. So, I relaxed in my new digs next to the Pirate Booty as she checked Danny in and waited at the gate, listening to him peppering her with endless questions about flight safety, (What’s a terrorist? How does the plane stay up in the air?) requests for snacks (Can I have Cheetos? How about Doritos? Can I have anything from the “OHs” family? ) and pithy observations about fellow travelers (Hey mom! Look at that fat guy!).

Finally, they said their goodbyes, and Danny was off. A while later, I heard a noise that sounded like a jet engine, and I had the strange sensation of rising into the air.  It was then I realized that Danny took the Rehoboth Beach bag, and I was on the plane!  
There was really nothing to be done at that point but relax, enjoy the flight, and reflect on the strange turn the day had taken. I had flown before, sure, but always on purpose. I was pretty sure that Kristi didn’t mean to send me on the plane- how would she get back into the car, in which her electronic devices, snacks, and other belongings were stored? How would she get back to the Cape? Was she planning on living at the airport?

As I pondered these questions, I soon became aware that the plane was landing. Soon after we got off the plane, I heard Eric’s voice, and Danny’s big paw reached in and lifted me out of the bag and dangled me in the air. There were loud exclamations, followed by protestations from Danny (“Those are swears, Daddy! You’re not supposed to say them!) and the flash of a camera phone, and then I was shoved in someone’s pocket.

The next few hours consisted of expletive-laced tirades about irresponsible wives, lacrosse tournaments, and mouth-breathing airline employees who really were earning their $7.50 an hour. It was quite traumatic. Finally, I was released from my prison only to be shoved into a large box. Later, I felt the strange sensation of rising into the air, and heard the loud noise of jet engines…another trip through the skies! This time, I made the pilgrimage unaccompanied, like the veteran traveler I had become. A few hours later, there was a ripping sound and a shriek of delight as Kristi grabbed me and waved me around triumphantly for all the apathetic airline employees to see.
Soon, I was reunited with my minivan, and resting in my usual cup holder as Kristi bolted down route 3 towards the Cape in a caffeine induced frenzy, yelling Katy Perry lyrics out the window to the darkening evening sky.

It felt good to be home.