Mari Passananti's Blog, page 2

July 26, 2014

I don't write about writing often, since I don't find the nuts and bolts of my work day very interesting. Short version: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard, eyes on clock so as not to be late for school pick up. But when the enchanting Laura Kenyon tagged me in this summer's writing process blog hop, I couldn't say no. 

Laura created the lighthearted and witty series Desperately Ever After. Her novels drop in on a group of well known fairy tale princesses—after their honeymoons are over—and shows the reader that it’s not all sunshine and roses after the first kiss. I’m delighted and honored that Laura thought of me for this interview.

What am I working on?
I’m working on a third novel, tentatively titled DO NO HARM. DO NO HARM follows three women whose lives intersect, due to their connection to a massive pharmaceutical trial in Malawi. Stella is married to George, the celebrated humanitarian and infectious disease specialist who runs the trial. She puts her impressive career on hold to support her husband’s. In writing Stella, I was interested in exploring the question of whether a family can survive two hyper-ambitious personalities, or will one always need to yield? The second woman, Melody, is young doctor from a poor family in Boston. The more she accomplishes, the more she disconnects from her roots. Melody works for George, and her plot explores the line between aid and exploitation. The third voice is a teenager named Princess, a village girl George and Melody hire to work in their clinic. Princess dreams of education and escape, but her father, a powerful and conservative clergyman, has other plans for her. Princess’s story line looks at stereotypes and expectations, and the steep personal costs of unorthodox ambitions.
How does my work differ from others of its genre? Hard question!I struggle with the idea of genre, though I suppose all my work could be classified as contemporary women’s fiction. I write mostly about young to middle aged professional women who find themselves in wacky situations.
My first novel, THE HAZARDS OF HUNTING WHILE HEARTBROKEN, fits the chick lit category, albeit with an unusual twist at the end.
I call my second book, THE K STREET AFFAIR, as a political suspense novel, but it’s also an adventure caper, in that my heroine—like James Bond, for example, or some of the earlier John Grisham heroes— stays alive much longer under her circumstances than a similarly situated lawyer in real life would expect to survive. THE K STREET AFFAIR delves into political corruption and the idea that multinational corporations are eclipsing governments as the power brokers of the world.
But unlike most thriller protagonists, Lena has to contend with friendships and family relationships, which tilts the novel back into women’s fiction territory. I knew when I wrote THE K STREET AFFAIR that I was writing a really quirky novel. While I think that makes it a more interesting read than THE HAZARDS, I never shopped the manuscript to traditional publishers, because the novel didn’t fit any genre pigeon hole. Looking back, I admit that was a big mistake—especially every time a reader tells me she or he would love to see the movie.
Maybe the third time will be the charm, because DO NO HARM fits the contemporary women’s fiction, or book club, genre. It’s also a much more “literary” project than my first two books, which could both be classified as “commercial fiction.”
See? Hard question.
Why Do I Write What I Write?I write about characters, places, situations, and questions that interest me. My books differ wildly from each other, because I think I suffer from some bizarre form of attention deficit disorder. I love to lose myself completely in the world of a group of characters for a year or two, and then move on to another world.
That said, both THE HAZARDS and K STREET ended on notes that left the door open for sequels, without demanding them. It might be fun to revisit those characters and story lines in the future.
How does my writing process work?In my perfect rhythm, I’d work for three or four hours in the morning, then take a break for a few hours to eat, exercise, rest, go outdoors, etc., and then work another three or four hours from afternoon into early evening.
But that’s not how my life works, because I have a little kid whose routine conflicts directly with my natural working rhythm. For now, I write while he’s at school. I’m much more of a morning person than a night owl, so if I need to find extra hours, I am more likely to get up early than to try to create anything after his bedtime.
I like to work in large (at least an hour, preferably more) chunks of time. I work at my desk at a window in a small office in our apartment, an alcove gated off and accessible only to me and the more agile of our two cats. I don’t write with music playing, and I envy the legions of mom writers who can pen brilliant scenes in their minivans, or at Starbucks, or at Chuck E. Cheese.
I don’t write from an outline, but I create a chapter by chapter summary in a separate document as I work. I write a messy, over sized draft from start to finish, then go back and revise, then solicit opinions from beta readers, then revise again, before showing my editor the more polished draft.
Now it’s my turn to point you towards two other writers. I chose them because I know their processes differ wildly from mine. 
You may not know the name Richard Fifield yet, but look for his debut novel, The Flood Girls, soon.  If I had to bet, I'd say that one day in the not too distant future, he'll be every bit as much a household name as that Franzen fellow. 
Wendy Walker is one of those supermom writers who writes novels in her minivan. Her books, Four Wives and Social Lives, examine the fallout of the sexual divisions of society we create when one partner earns and the other stays home. Wendy encouraged me to keep writing years ago, when all I had was a messy first draft of a first novel and no knowledge of the publishing industry whatsoever.

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Published on July 26, 2014 04:44 • 8 views

July 14, 2014

Sometimes I wonder if the Grape has it too easy.

Last week the temperature and humidity soared in Boston, and as the Grape and I trudged home from camp through the mid-afternoon soup, under a blazing sun, he said, "I can't wait to get home to the air conditioning."

I agreed. I love the summer, and the beach, but I don't have much use for temperatures above ninety. In my humble opinion, the only sensible place to be in such adverse conditions is under water, preferably with a snorkel.

"When your uncle and I were kids, we didn't have air conditioning," I told the Grape, as I tried to ignore the sweat streaming down my neck and legs.

The Grape gave me a look that said he wasn't buying such nonsense.

"It's true," I insisted, but he sensed a "walked uphill both ways, and fought off bears with my lunchbox" type tale coming on, and he lost interest.

I grew up  in Rhode Island, near the shore, which (in fairness) meant the ocean moderated the climate quite a bit. Even so, for a few long weeks every summer, the temperature would climb to the nineties and higher, the humidity would keep pace, and we would swelter.

We were lucky: My mother took us to the beach a lot. Occasionally we'd hit the grocery store on the way home and linger in the ice cream aisle.

But we'd inevitably pack it up by five o'clock, at which point our house felt like an oven set to broil and the yard buzzed thick with mosquitoes, who feasted on the Mediterranean blood coursing through my kid brother's veins and mine, while leaving our Finnish mother unmolested.

My brother and I normally picked the latter poison, and then tossed all night, sweating and itching. Or I did. My brother could sleep through anything.

On especially miserable evenings, my father would pile us into our massive blue Buick and the whole family would head for the blissful oasis of Pizza Hut.

Back then, Pizza Hut was a sit down restaurant, with red and white checkered table cloths and waitresses rendered preternaturally cheerful, probably because Pizza Hut had the coldest AC in all of North Kingstown, Rhode Island,  if not the entirety of Washington County.

And if memory serves, the parental allure was enhanced but the fact that they served pitchers of beer. Or it might have been Pepsi, or Tab. By then, my folks were too overheated to care.

We would milk that AC for all it was worth. We'd eat three courses at Pizza Hut before reluctantly paying the bill and stepping out into the steamy parking lot. One especially hot night, my dad ordered a small pizza for the four of us, and after we'd demolished that, he ordered another one, just to extend our sojourn in the cold.

I can't explain why my parents resisted the installment of air conditioning for so many years. It wasn't due to concern for the planet. Back in the 1970s and 80s, global warming hadn't crossed their radar.

I think their resistance was partially due to the expense, since AC isn't exactly easy on the electric bill.

But for my mother at least, I suspect the reluctance to chill us out was about more than the utility bills. She likely objected on the dual grounds of perceived pretentiousness and tackiness. An AC could be construed as pretentious and showy, since not very many people we knew had them, and because the hot season, while brutal, was also brief.

AC could also be considered tacky, because the window units would  look silly sticking out of the over sized glass windows of our 70s deck house (visual aid: it looks exactly like the Brady Bunch house from the outside).

Concerns about cost, ostentatiousness and tackiness were finally brushed aside during a lengthy heat wave in the summer of 1981. Or maybe it was 1982. Anyway, my parents caved, or wilted, rather, and my dad emerged from Benny's with a glorious, enormous window unit contraption.

Most people would assume my parents installed the house's sole air conditioner in the master bedroom.


There was a study off the master bedroom, with a window largely obscured from public view by an enormous evergreen tree. That's where the AC went, and we pushed and shoved to get closer to it as it roared to life and clattered like a broken luggage carousel. You could probably hear that old window unit next door, but we didn't care.

The whole family would huddle in the study during the hours after dinner and before bedtime. My brother and I never slept in the blissful cool, though my parents might have once or twice, behind our backs.  I have no proof, just a hunch, based on the circumstantial evidence that the study featured a pullout sofa.

As far as I know, the only family member to get a cool night's sleep on a regular basis back in those days was the dog. He was a medium-sized, fine-boned black mutt with expressive ears and a big white splotch on his chest, and he was no dummy. He grinned as the door shut behind him at night, closing him in the mysterious bubble of loud Arctic chill.

The year after the air conditioner arrived, my dad brought home the world's tiniest television for the study, which represented, in my view and my brother's, a massive, previously unimaginable upgrade.  We spent hours fiddling with its rabbit ears. Nintendo followed a few years later. We had two games: Mario and Duck Hunt.

At some stage, my mother installed a turbo charged ceiling fan in the master bedroom. If memory serves, its arrival loosely coincided with that of my little sister.

My parents didn't air condition the whole house for another decade, by which time I was off at college, where my roommate and I put towels over the air vents to prevent the temperature in our room from dropping below sixty in September. Some might say, be careful what you wish for, but I didn't mind.

So the Grape might have it easy, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. My parents lived their earliest years without plumbing in post-War Europe. I'm grateful they didn't impose the same on us, to make some silly point about the kids being too soft.

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Published on July 14, 2014 07:36 • 1 view

June 30, 2014

"Congratulations," an older acquaintance told me on the birth of the Grape. "Now you can worry until you die."

I smiled and nodded, and silently reassured myself that I wasn't going to turn into one of those hyper-vigilant, exceedingly annoying helicopter types.

After all, R. and I didn't chart feedings and diaper changes in those early days. The Grape slept in a separate room from the get-go. We never even purchased a baby monitor, since we had a smallish apartment, and while the Grape had digestive issues requiring surgery as an infant, his lungs were in top form from day one.

We're still pretty permissive parents. The Grape skis, and he skis fast. He rides his bike and scooter all over Boston, as do most of his little friends. We never call our babysitters "just to check on things."

So I was completely caught off guard when R. and his dad took the Grape camping in western Massachusetts this weekend, and instead of reveling in the silence and solitude, I spent most of Saturday fretting.

This makes no sense.

R. is an extremely capable dad. I've traveled solo on a few occasions, and I've never worried about how the boys were faring without me back in Boston.

But Saturday, while I took Lila the Dog for an extra long walk, worked half a day, watched a little World Cup, and had a lovely dinner with a girlfriend, I worried about silly things. Really silly things.

Were they checking for ticks? Would the Grape wake up at two in the morning in a panic? Were there poisonous snakes in the woods of New England? And if so, were was the nearest anti-venom? Why on earth did they need to choose a campsite with zero cell service? Did R. know the location of the nearest ER?

And while I squandered my precious alone time on idiotic concerns, I fully understood I was being ridiculous. R. didn't lose sleep when I took the Grape to Finland for two weeks without him. Even though Finland definitely has plenty of poisonous snakes, and we spend days on end in the woods while there. On the plus side, you'd be hard pressed to find a spot with less than five bars of cell service.

As I lay awake Saturday night, I decided that my worries about the first ever Dad and Lad to the Second Power Outing were about a false, completely imagined sense of loss of control.

I was being as silly as those people who fear flying, because they don't like the idea of someone else piloting the aircraft, even though they understand that they're much likelier to die in their own cars.

Bad things happen everywhere. Like all major metropolitan areas, Boston has its share of horrible vehicle versus pedestrian crashes. So I watch my kid on his bike or scooter like a hawk, and I teach him to look both ways, even on one-way streets, and never, ever to play chicken with speeding cabs. I teach him to watch out for broken glass, to give unknown dogs space, and never to touch junk he finds in parks, because you never know when the trash in question could be a used needle. (I've found two in the park across the street during our almost four-year tenure in this apartment.)

It doesn't take a genius to grasp that his little life is more imperiled while commuting to school than while roasting weenies with his father and grandfather in attendance. And yet, I didn't sleep well Saturday night.

While I catch myself holding my breath every time we negotiate a busy intersection, I don't fret about the school schlep when it's not happening, because it's such a familiar part of our routine. And because my physical presence gives me that entirely false sense of control.

The Grape had a great time on his camping adventure. He slept all night in the tent and roasted marshmallows and explored the woods. He's already asking when they can go again.

Maybe I won't fret as much next time. Maybe.

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Published on June 30, 2014 08:52 • 2 views

June 16, 2014

This exchange happened the other day:

Me: Look! Your friend, W., has a new dog. Isn't she cute?

Grape (visibly alarmed): What happened to Maggie? W.'s old dog?

Me: She died.

Grape (big frown, face crumples): Oh, dear. Why?

Me: Well, Maggie was old and very sick.

Grape (looking as if he might burst into tears): Is that going to happen to Lila?

Me: Hopefully not for a very long time.

Grape: But she will die some day? (with greater urgency) Is Lila going to DIE, Mamma?

Me: Yes, but hopefully not for a very, very long time. Lila should have many good years ahead.

Grape (Pensive silence, sad face, followed by *long* pause, and sudden brightening): What should we name our next dog?

Me: [Face palm.]

I don't remember the moment I realized death was permanent; all I know is I definitely understood by age six. That was when my grandfather and our family dog died within three days of each other. I was certain of three things:

1. Neither grandfather nor dog was coming back.

2. I was very sad about both events, but far more viscerally upset about the dog.

3. I knew it was deeply shameful to be more distraught over the dog, so I did my six-year-old best to hide this fact.

I don't think the Grape gets the death thing yet, which is largely my fault. In my desire to let him be little, he's been sheltered from some of the more unpleasant facts of life and mortality. It's not like we live on a farm where these circle of life mysteries get cleared up easily.

We've also been lucky. (Yes, I'm knocking hard on my wooden desk as I type this). The Grape hasn't lost any immediate family members or close friends.

We've haven't had to cross the "death bridge," so I haven't gone there.

Some of his pals have lost grandparents, and on such occasions,  he's asked me why grown-ups are sad. When I explain that so-and-so's Mommy is sad because her mother died, he usually accepts that answer without follow up. If anything, he verifies that the deceased was very, very old.

So I'm pretty sure some connection between advanced age and not living anymore exists in his head.

We've happened upon the odd dead wild animal. I can't figure out if the Grape understands that these unfortunate critters aren't just down for a big sleep.  I've also watched him, many times, turn away from the glass-eyed snappers and mackerels packed in ice at the fish counter at the grocery store. His brain doesn't seem to want to go "there," and it seems cruel to force it.

Anyway, he's not invested in a dead squirrel, bird, or mackerel the way he's invested in Lila the Dog, Siren the Cat,  Lucy the (Perpetual) Kitten, and various human family members.

On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that it's high time to level with the Grape.

Lately, I've heard kids on the playground shouting, sometimes gleefully, sometimes angrily, "I'm going to kill you!"

The Grape knows that in our household, such talk is completely unacceptable, and that such utterances on his part rain down severe consequences.

I am confident he knows it's not a nice thing to say.

I suspect the Grape thinks "to kill" means to cause some nonspecific kind of harm, and to assert dominance. When pressed, he says it means "to hurt."

This inability to process the permanence of death is a major reason I'm adamantly opposed to any kind of toy weapons. At four, they know not what they do. Young children's games that reinforce the insane idea that violence can exist without consequence do nothing to create good world citizens.

I doubt the Grape or his pals can wrap their four-year-old minds around the permanence of death, or of killing. When adult minds wrestle with the concept of infinity—if it's human nature to seek boundaries and borders—can a four-year-old understand forever?

The Grape is fast approaching five. If, based on experience, six-year-olds understand what it means to die, I suspect some kind of awakening to that fact will start to happen over the next twelve months.

So maybe this is one area where it's best to let him learn organically, to leave well enough alone, to avoid traumatizing the little guy by explaining unpleasant truths unless and until absolutely necessary.

And I'm starting to understand why some parents quietly replace dead goldfish or parakeets or hamsters. I'm queasy about the idea. I don't have a horse in that particular race, since we don't have any small, cage dwelling pets, but I kind of get the practice now. These parents are desperate to avoid going "there." I still find the replacement practice weird, but now I might just go out and buy some fish.

Because odds are good the fish won't live for years and years. Maybe the Grape should lose a few goldfish before wrangling with the greater bereavements of life.

(Aside: If we do get fish, we will do our best to keep them going as long as possible. Please do not write me hate mail, accusing me of plotting fish murders.)

Or maybe we don't need the fish. Maybe he can just be innocent of death a few months (a year? two?) more, until his brain catches up to the concept.

I want to let him be little as long as possible.

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Published on June 16, 2014 08:32

June 10, 2014

One thing I've noticed about life with a little kid: The days often feel long, but the weeks and months rocket by.

Tomorrow the Grape will graduate from preschool—that wonderful place around which our weekdays have revolved since September, 2011.

Here he is, checking out the dramatic play corner of the two-year-old room on his very first day:

This photo was snapped before he realized I was about to leave him there for almost three hours. He was a newly minted two-year-old; he started school four weeks after his second birthday.

I never meant to send the Grape to school so young. I'd filled out a form to apply to the three-year-old room for the following school year. Admittedly, I'd done so very early, on the advice of friends with older kids.

Then our beloved sitter, M., told us she was moving out of Boston in August.

Serendipitously, the preschool director called to let us know she had a two-year-old spot, for three days a week, starting three weeks hence.

We'd interviewed a few replacement sitters, but hadn't found that perfect fit, and I was growing increasingly anxious and weepy as the date of M.'s departure drew near.

Did we want the spot for the Grape? asked the preschool director.

"Isn't he too young?" I asked.

"That's your decision," she said. "But yes, he would be the youngest in the school."

I asked the departing sitter what she thought. After all, she was the baby whisperer, the one who could get the Grape to eat and sleep when nobody else could stop him from howling. And she had a master's in social work and a long career working with children. We valued her opinion.

"He'd love it. He loves being with other children," she said without missing a beat.

She was so sure that she made me feel sure. I called the preschool. "We'll take it."

Best parenting decision we ever made. Hands down.

The little baby playing in the kitchen is a full fledged kid now, one who knows an era is ending and who feels angst and nerves about the unknown world of kindergarten—a hazy place in his head, albeit one reached by bus.

One who marches confidently around the city with his class, who builds long term group projects and creates elaborate imaginary play scenarios with his friends. He's made charts of the triumphs and defeats of the Red Sox. He's learned about the inner workings of the human body and about the ocean. He's built entire cities with blocks.

He's explored different kinds of art, he's been to parks I never knew existed, and he's gone from a little boy who ran from the stage shrieking in terror during his first holiday show, to one who proudly belts out songs with his classmates.

He's learned to be a good classroom citizen.

He can do basic arithmetic and write his terribly long name. He recognizes several written words.

All in a purely play-based, child-centered environment, where the teachers never threw a single ditto or flashcard at the kids.

And he's made real friends, many of whom will go their separate ways tomorrow afternoon. (One boy from the class will attend the same kindergarten as the Grape.)

I'm grateful he won't know to mourn those losses, that he won't truly process the permanence of graduation. That he'll have the summer to adjust to a necessary change, and to meet his old friends at the playground.

But his Mamma will probably cry when we walk out of that school for the last time.

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Published on June 10, 2014 07:36

May 29, 2014

I get asked, "Who's your favorite writer?" all the time.

I'm sure anyone who writes get this inquiry on a regular basis. Maybe I should be prepared to answer without missing a beat.

But the answer, which never fails to disappoint the person asking, is, "It's complicated." Because it is. The question, most recently posed by a college student, is overly broad.

I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic. I read mostly fiction, of both the literary and commercial varieties. I'm one of those people who always has a book going. This question shouldn't blindside me, leave me stammering like an unread nitwit.

But it does, and I finally figured out why.

I don't have a favorite author, and I'm unwilling to offer a quick, obvious  answer, like Jane Austen, or Edith Wharton, though I love them both. (Because you're shocked, right? Someone who pens women's fiction likes Austen. How predictable.)

Offering up Austen and changing the subject seems akin to a college boy professing love for Kerouac in the face of the favorite writer question, or perhaps offering up Hunter S. Thompson.

Too easy, and too dismissive of the inquiry, which was no doubt made in a good faith effort to make interesting conversation.

The only thing worse would be saying, "Shakespeare," not because I don't love the bard, but because I'm pretty sure that when people ask, they mean which contemporary authors.

They may want to be turned onto someone new. They don't need a crotchety reminder to brush up on Shakespeare, anymore than they need a smug reminder that some of us have read War and Peace for fun, and enjoyed every minute.

I'm determined not to mess up this question again. So I've made a list, which is by no means exhaustive, and which is offered in alphabetical order, because it's so eclectic. You've been warned.

Margaret Atwood: I read everything she writes and her work both thrills and terrifies me, and never fails to make me think.

Jenna Blum: Because her novel Those Who Save Us was one of my favorite books, in spite of its very tough subject matter, several years before she and I became friends. Plus, she's a master of novel structure. Writers should read her for that reason alone.
Isak Dinesen: I read her early, in middle school. She made me want to see Africa and indeed the world.
Sebastian Faulks: His novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray got me reading for pure pleasure again after a slump in law school, for which I am deeply grateful.
Helen Fielding: She created a genre and she writes quirky, accessible novels. I love quirky. And how can you not love a genre creator?
Richard Fifield: I know. "Who?" Fret not. You'll have heard of him soon. I had the great privilege of reading his debut novel, The Flood Girls, while he was writing and polishing the manuscript. He tackles heartbreaking topics with  elegant, efficient prose and has a innate gift for description that cannot be taught.
Emily Giffin: I snatched her debut novel, Something Borrowed, off my sister-in-law's beach chair a decade ago and it changed my life before I even started reading this masterpiece of chick lit. While shaking sand out of the dust jacket, I had an epiphany. She was a lawyer, just like me. And she had written a novel, which was something I'd always wanted to do. I went home and did it.
Allegra Goodman: I suspect, if Ms. Goodman were a man, she'd be celebrated as the writer of the modern Great American Novel. She writes about relationships in exhaustively researched contemporary settings. She does so in a manner that takes the reader from one character's mind to the next, and she makes it all look effortless, a talent demonstrated by Tolstoy. Who happens to be another of my favorites. Sorry. I had to sneak that in there.
John Grisham: Nobody does pacing like him. Period. I love his books on long plane rides. I also dig his politics.
Barbara Kingsolver: She wrote The Poisonwood Bible, one of my all time favorite novels, an achingly beautiful page turner.

Ann Hood: Because she writes elegant, compelling prose that haunts me even after the story is told. The Obituary Writer was one of my favorite books this year, an honest yet alluring rendering of grief.

Arundathi Roy: Because The God of Small Things is another of my all time favorite novels, and because I admire her willingness to speak her mind on issues of importance to her, regardless of the consequences to her career.

J. Courtney Sullivan: She expertly weaves the past and present, through characters with astonishing, yet somehow believable, connections to each other. The Engagements was another of my favorite books this year. Plus she always makes me wish I'd gone to Smith.

That's my list as it stands today. I reserve the right to make additions. Did I miss any of your favorites?

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Published on May 29, 2014 11:21 • 1 view

May 19, 2014

We just returned from five nights in Disney World. My parents wanted to take the Grape, and my dad talked about the trip in abstract, sometime-in-the-future form so frequently that I had to tell him he had a choice: 1. Stop talking about it/whipping the Grape into a frenzy, or 2. Book the trip.

He elected to book the trip.

The Grape, quite literally, had the time of his life.

R. and I learned a few things that I thought I'd share, in case any of you are planning to visit the Magical Mouse Empire.

1. Pull the kids out of school and go during a "low crowd volume week."


There are several blogs devoted to charting crowd flow at Disney parks. We used this one. Some of his tips veer towards intense (his view is you must do every attraction), but I thought his tips on the crowd calendar looked spot on. We picked a "lowest volume" week, and cross referenced to avoid hurricane season and other undesirable weather trends.

I'm so glad we did. Our longest wait was twenty minutes, for Spaceship Earth, and we walked onto most rides. Even so, the parks felt busy, and the entrances were crowded. So much so that I don't ever want to see a high volume week.

The other huge plus of a low volume week is that your kid can go on favorite rides many times. If your child is anything like the Grape, i.e. pensive and suspicious, s/he won't get a lot out of the first whirl on any ride. It's great to re-visit favorites without queuing.

Potential pitfall: We went on Small World eight times. Eight is a lot.

2. Work the Fast Pass system. Figure out your top three priorities for each day and reserve fast passes for them.

A friend passed along another helpful nugget regarding Fast Passes: If you have a Fast Pass for an attraction with a short (i.e. ten minute) wait, switch the Fast Pass to another attraction. One important caveat: When using the app, there's no guarantee that when you change the fast pass attraction, you'll get your replacement selection in your original time slot. So consider your timing for the day before making changes.

3. Figure out your fourth through sixth priorities, for which you won't have Fast Passes, and do those as soon as the park opens. 

Example: We had a Fast Pass for Winnie the Pooh from 9 to 10 a.m. our last morning, but couldn't get Fast Pass for Peter Pan, which was one of the Grape's favorite things. We went straight to Peter Pan as soon as the Magic Kingdom opened at 9, then rode Small World and the carousel, then used our Fast Pass for Winnie around 9:35.

4. Measure your kid before you book the trip. The cutoff for *most* rides is forty inches. A few are even taller.

5. You need dinner reservations, and reservations for any character dining you wish to do. They're not kidding about this. Unless you really enjoy waiting a long time with a hungry, tired child. You also have to accept at the outset that the food in Disney is expensive for what it is.

This was tough for me to grasp, since I don't know weeks in advance, what and when I wish to eat. But you have to suck it up and reserve tables. If anyone knows a reliable workaround, I'd love to hear about it.

6. They get you on admission for days one through five, but if you want to stay longer, days six through ten are a huge bargain.

7. Register the Disney tickets for each member of your party prior to arrival, so you can book the Fast Passes in advance through the app.

8. If your child is princess obsessed, you MUST Fast Pass the Princess meet and greet. Even during our low crowd volume week, the stand by wait time to meet Princess Elsa veered close to FOUR HOURS(?!?!). No wait time in any park came close.

9. The only place in the Magic Kingdom that serves adult beverages is the Be Our Guest Restaurant. Shockingly, they are booked up months in advance.

The other parks serve wine and beer and even cocktails at various locations. You can even carry a roadie around the Epcot.

10. Disney excels at moving people, and their parks and transit system are remarkably clean when you consider the traffic. I doubt there's a cleaner amusement park anywhere in the world.

11. If you're accustomed to walking, be prepared to see lots of folks who aren't, because it will annoy you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

We saw four, five, six, seven, and eight year olds, and possibly even older kids, in strollers(?!?!)

Yet we wonder why so many American kids are obese. A lot of the strollers are also piloted by adults who clearly don't drive strollers on a daily basis, and are therefore a menace on the sidewalks, monorails, buses, etc.

We also saw a stunning number of able bodied adults on motorized scooters.  The Magic Kingdom is only 107 acres. Even the much larger Epcot park is still measured in acres instead of miles (it's 300 acres).

I am delighted that Disney is handicap accessible, because it makes the experience available to those with physical challenges.

But the number of people blatantly abusing the system bothered me.

12. For most adults, Disney World is more trip than vacation. It's all about the kids. You will probably come home feeling tired and over stimulated, but your kid will have a ball, and beg to visit again.

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Published on May 19, 2014 08:24 • 4 views

May 8, 2014

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," model Kate Moss famously quipped.

Except wine.

And therein lies the rub.

Or the belly rub, if you will.

Last spring, I wrote about embarking on my first ever real "program."

I'd been a very lucky woman until about age thirty-eight: I was naturally inclined to enjoy exercise and I could eat desserts and drink alcohol, without a lot of concern for my midsection.

Then a double whammy hit.

My metabolism hit The Wall, an obstacle familiar to the vast majority of women slightly beyond peak birthing age, and I began taking medication for a health issue, and that medication made me retain water some of the time, so my weight would yo-yo dramatically week to week.

I decided something had to be done.

The answer, for me, is NEVER new pants.

Instead of hitting the mall, I rebooted my workouts, which had become admittedly lame after I was forced to quit running. I added a couple of days a week of real strength training. By which I mean I lifted weights that were actually kind of challenging to hoist repeatedly. And I started watching calories. Not obsessively. But I had to become aware, and realize that, for the most part, the program was the new normal.

Last spring, I dropped between twelve and sixteen pounds in seven weeks (depending on which end of the medication induced weight yo-yo I count from).

I've kept all but four off. No mysteries here. I've kept up the mindful eating and strength training.

It's the wine.

I've resolved to drop those four pounds, plus one more, because I like easy numbers. Which means I'm back on The Program.

So many of you emailed me and asked what I ate during the program that I thought I'd share here.
Basically, I dialed back (but didn't totally eliminate) dairy and wheat, dialed back alcohol to two nights a week, and nixed sweets for two months (the only dessert cheat was when I was a guest in someone else's home).

And I stopped scarfing the Grape's leftovers. This was hard for me. I view wasting food as a major sin.

Here's the food side of The Program:

Breakfast: Most mornings: A couple of scrambled eggs, a whole fresh fruit and/or a cup of fresh berries, coffee with milk. Sometimes yogurt in place of the eggs. Sometimes oatmeal with an apple or banana.

Lunch: Most days: Salad with either tuna or beans for protein, with olive oil and vinegar. No croutons. And obviously no salad bar items soaked in mayo.

Dinner: Most evenings: Some kind of grilled or baked fish or shellfish, LOTS of sauteed green veggies or a salad, rice or a baked potato with a modest dab of butter. Wine with dinner only twice a week. No desserts.

About twice a week, I cooked pasta—and I don't do brown pasta—because it's something we all like to eat as a family. I'd eat a normal portion, and I don't eat pasta without parmesan or pecorino romano. Some cultural things are too sacred to sacrifice on the swimsuit altar.

I'm not a snacker, but if my stomach complained to the point that I found myself tempted to chew on my arm, I'd eat a piece of fruit, some carrots, with or without hummus, some nuts or pickles.

In rare good news, it turns out that pickles are an appetite suppressant. Hurrah!

I'm following the same mindful eating rules again, and experimenting with adding a third day per week of strength intervals, in hopes of jolting my metabolism.

The first week or two are the toughest. I get cranky when I'm hungry. I'm over that hump now and feeling happier.

I will offer one final caveat. For me, it's virtually impossible to diet if I'm not sleeping enough. Sleep deprivation screws with your metabolism. I had serious sleep issues during pregnancy and the first year of the Grape's life. It would have been an awful time to go on a restrictive program.

What I learned: don't set yourself up to fail. Eating healthy foods and exercising can help you sleep better for sure. But never go to bed starving if you're already struggling with insomnia.

I'll report back next month.

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Published on May 08, 2014 07:21 • 8 views

May 6, 2014

Our private school application journey had a steep learning curve. I've received quite a few emails, asking me to "out" the schools to which we applied in this space, which I've decided not to do. However, I'm happy to share the nuggets I've picked up in recent months. I hope they're helpful to parents facing the private school shuffle in the fall.

1. Many schools are incredibly flexible with their age cutoffs, if you want to hold your child back a grade. This is called red shirting and it's en vogue, if not required, in many private schools. I'm not sure why the trend favors giant kindergartners, but I think three factors come into play. Older kids are usually easier to manage from a practical standpoint. Kindergarten looks more like first grade now than it did thirty years ago. Some (but not all) private schools are actually concerned about kids' future sporting prowess, and they figure than giant kindergartners make giant lacrosse players in grade nine.

2. Most private schools offer no flexibility whatsoever if you want to nudge your kid into a class ahead of the age cutoff. I.e. If the rule is age five by September 1, fall birthdays shouldn't bother. (Note: I don't know if this holds true for kids who already have siblings in the school.)

3. All the schools in Massachusetts seem to cut off their class at age five by September 1. I suspect this has something to do with securing accreditation as a kindergarten, because that is the public school cutoff date in our state. But in many cases, this isn't the real cutoff. We found private schools that unabashedly cut their entering kindergarten class as early as five by April 15 and as late as September 1, with most cutting the class at age five by May or June.

4. If your child, like the Grape, has a birthday within a couple of months of the cutoff date, ASK about the birthday demographics of the incoming class. The admissions directors will be able to tell you a list of birthdays, based on the siblings of current students they have in place. They can also break the list down by sex.  It's not a full picture, but especially at schools with more than one classroom per grade, it's pretty accurate.

5. Summer girls get more leeway than summer boys, because more girls than boys do well at sitting still at age four. The schools don't seem to care if you think your girl is hyper or your boy is super mellow. They go with the birthday demographics.

6. If the school cuts its incoming class in the spring, your summer boy will not be admitted, even if you believe he is God's gift to academia and you can convince the admissions committee of that fact. Because the bottom line is, the schools want your youngster to have a peer. I.e. If they admit one very newly minted five-year-old into a class comprised of six- and almost-six-year-olds, they need to admit at least two more newly minted five-year-olds so your kid would have a true peers. Not happening.

7. Money matters. I'd be delighted to be proven wrong here, but I have yet to hear of a case of a child of a serious celebrity being dinged, or even wait listed. Private schools, for all their impressive progress in terms of racial, ethnic, and to a lesser degree, socio-economic diversity, still keep an eagle eye on their endowments. This doesn't mean that scholarship kids don't make the cut. It just means the odds go down, if there are celebrity tots in the applicant pool.

I've also heard anecdotes about schools asking parents to explain how School fits into their philanthropic priorities, and about admissions officers being caught red handed making notes on trappings of wealth such as jewelry during the parent interview.

8. Ask how many seats are available for boys and girls, because it's not the number of seats in the kindergarten. The vast majority of schools try for a fifty-fifty split by sex, and the number of current students' siblings in the entering class will affect the number of open seats for each sex.

9. No school is perfect. A school that's a great fit for one family might not mesh with yours. Educational philosophies and preferences differ. My tastes run to coed, play based programs, schools that encourage kids' natural curiosity, that offer recesses and exposure to the arts and a foreign language. I'm not big on little kids sitting at desks, excessive formality, or super long or super short school days. But that's just me.

That's my round up. Please let me know if you think I missed anything critical.

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Published on May 06, 2014 10:02 • 1 view

April 24, 2014

The Grape is going to Kindergarten in September after all.

And we're staying put in the city for at least one more year.

I wrote last month that the Grape wouldn't be attending either of the two private schools to which we applied, but it turns out the tea leaves changed this month.

Quick recap: one school cut its Kindergarten class with spring birthdays, rendering the Grape ineligible based on demographics. Simply put, we applied a year too early for their profile.

The other private school offered us a pre-K spot after we applied for Kindergarten and stated, both in person and in writing, that we were only interested in Kindergarten. We knew this school's age demographic skewed younger than the first school's, i.e. There was no red shirt birthday cutoff in play.

I wrote last month that the disjointed process left a really bad taste in our mouths.

I suppose we could have tossed the letter regarding pre-K in the trash and left it at that, but R. and I were so puzzled about this outcome, we decided to inquire by phone.

Long story (involving much phone tag) made short: R. called and made it clear we weren't going to send the Grape to pre-K. Then he asked the admissions director, as politely as humanly possible, WTF?

After a moderate degree of ado, a Kindergarten spot materialized. The admissions director noted in an email to us she was impressed with our advocacy for our son. I take this to mean she thinks we are very pushy and demanding people (high compliments, in my opinion).

So why, if the process ticked us off, did we take the Kindergarten spot?

Three reasons.

First and foremost, we really like the school. It features a play based, child centered, Reggio inspired Kindergarten program, and we think that environment will be a great fit for our pensive but social kid. The school shares many of our values, with an emphasis social justice, organic learning, community mindedness, and development of problem solving skills. We know quite a few families at the school who have been delighted with their experiences. The Grape will get to start a foreign language in September. We were impressed by the teachers we met during our visit.

Simply put, there was no reasonable argument in favor of turning down a Kindergarten seat we wanted in the first place, because the process didn't gallop along as smoothly we hoped. Especially since the BPS lottery didn't pan out in our favor.

Second, we may still move to the suburbs eventually, but we didn't want to do so without serious deliberation.

Yes, it would be great to have a yard, a mudroom, a playroom, and some space to entertain. But we still love many things about the city. If and when we move, I want to take our time and get a much better grasp on neighborhood options. Call it moving proactively, rather than reactively.

Third, private school is a product families buy one year at a time.

I think a lot of people lose sight of this fact, because all the schools try to package themselves as long haul commitments. They all say things like, "You join our community." You never hear, "You buy a year of tuition."

But the truth is, you reassess every year. If the system is working for your kid, fantastic. If not, you make a change.

I find that there's always the plan, and then there's what happens. We might stay in the city for the duration of the Grape's elementary school years, or we might still flee to the land of mudrooms, picket fences, and highly desirable public schools.

In any case, we're focused on the here and now, and we're delighted the Grape will be joining his friends in Kindergarten this fall.

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Published on April 24, 2014 11:29 • 5 views