Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How The Peanuts Movie Failed Our Children

Rejection after rejection after rejection.

As my high school classmates were receiving big, thick college acceptance letters, I was opening only paper thin, small enveloped rejections.  But it wasn't until opening a rejection from my "safety" school, the lowest ranking of any school I'd considered, that I started to worry.  See, though I'd applied to 8 or 10 universities, there was only one I was willing to attend.  I'm not sure what set my sights on the highly acclaimed Boston College, but I knew that was where I needed to be.  So much so that if I weren't accepted, I told my mother I wanted to take a year off and reapply.

While she never said so, at least to me, I know that declaration made my mother a nervous wreck.  "Numbers don't lie" people say.  So when my SAT scores came back in a three digit number, she had plenty of cause for alarm.  I held out hope.

When my college counselor spoke with the admissions department at Boston College, shortly after my acceptance, she was told I would not have been accepted if it weren't for my essays.  "By the skin of your teeth" people say.  And surely that's how I got accepted into Boston College, where I landed on the Dean's List 7 of 8 semesters and graduated with a double major.

Thankfully both BC and I knew I was worth way more than my SAT score.  Sadly, Charlie Brown may not know the same.

Overall, The Peanuts Movie was cute.  Visually it was well done, and though the main plot revolves mostly around Charlie Brown's silly crush on a new neighbor, the story successfully involves each of the characters in a nature true to the history of the franchise.  Charlie Brown is the same "lovable loser" as we've always seen him.

Until, that is, he learns he is the first student in the history of his school to receive a perfect score on a standardized test.  Once surrounded in the hallways by googly-eyed schoolmates staring at his "100%" on the bulletin board, suddenly Charlie Brown is worth something.  Not only to himself, but to everyone around him.  Suddenly he is the most popular, most sought after boy in school, showing more confidence than ever before.  Even Lucy wants to be near him.

It isn't until during a school assembly set to celebrate Charlie's achievements that he learns (*spoiler alert*) that the perfect score is not in fact his.  His cheeks blush, his voice cracks and his self-worth plummets right before the eyes of the entire school, the crush- and the young film audience.

No one tells Charlie Brown that his intelligence, imagination and value as a human being have nothing to do with the standardized test score.  No one tells him that his creativity and caring nature cannot be reflected in a number.  And certainly no one tells him that sending a message to impressionable children that their ability to succeed (or be loved) can be numerated by a bubble test is as dangerous as it is irresponsible.

I'd always assumed that by the time I entered my forties standardized tests would be a thing of the past, just as I assumed we'd be driving spaceships as cars like The Jetsons.  We've made some progress toward both, but aren't there quite yet.  My own daughters, now 5 and 7, don't have long before sharpening a number two pencil, squeezing their too long names into too few bubbles and answering multiple choice questions strategically written to confuse them and gage their ability at the same time.  And while I'd like to say their scores at that time will be somewhat irrelevant, I know they won't be.

Hopefully, no matter the result, I can convince them otherwise.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Do I Hope My Kids Dance? Sure. But I Hope They Do This A Lot More

I still remember the Polaroid of the first book my brother ever borrowed from our small town public library.  It was a closeup, not of him holding the book, but of the book alone on our royal blue shag carpet.  The photo was a celebration.  It was a celebration not just of my big brother, my mother's first child, finally old enough to read.  It was a celebration of the book itself.  Of the freedom the words on paper brought with them.  Or at least, that's how I remember it.

Three years his junior, I wasn't quite ready for my own library card.  Surprisingly, I don't remember the photo of my first borrowed book (although I am sure my mother took one, as she was incredibly fair in that way).  I do, however, remember aspiring to read on my own.

Before I knew it I was at a prestigious preparatory school studying Shakespeare, Orwell, Homer's Odyssey and likely a lot of CliffsNotes.  (By the way, thanks Cliff.  You are the man.)  Required reading in college was much of the same, with some Plato and Aristotle tossed in for good measure.  Now days away from my (eek) 40th birthday, most of those books bring only one word to mind.


Several years ago I set out to make my first New Year's Resolution in forever.  I skipped right over exercising regularly, eating healthily and cutting Diet Coke out of my daily routine as that'd merely be setting myself up for failure.  Then I remembered my brother's book.  I remembered the mystery, the power, the privilege sitting within his reach.  More importantly, I remembered the longing to make those things own.

In that moment I made a resolution to read more for pleasure.  I didn't set a specific goal.  Let's face it... Reading one book for pleasure that year would have been more than I'd read in years past.  So with even one novel in hand, success was literally at my fingertips.  I am unsure how many books I read that year, but it was a lot.

As a busy mother of two with an unpredictable work schedule and tendency to fill whatever openings do exist in my schedule with anything to help satiate an unhealthy desire to be SuperWoman, little time is left to read.  But the result is more grand than ever I expected.

E-Reader phobic, I've accrued quite the pile of novels on my nightstand.  In our hurry-up-and-wait society, I find carrying a book in my purse or on the passenger seat of my car as the perfect remedy.  How often do I read in those circumstances?  Almost never.  But the intent is there.  The dream.

Still, the most beautiful return on that resolution I have yet to mention.

My youngest daughter is a creature of habit, more set in her ways than you can imagine.  (Yes, Mom. I know.  Some apples don't fall far from the tree.)  But bedtime can be an exceptionally difficult time for her, as everything has to go just right.  Now a kindergartner, only two months into her school year, I am proud to say she is a full-fledged reader.  Like any younger sibling, she wants to follow in her sister's bigger footsteps.  So for the last several weeks, bedtime has consisted of her reading me a story before I'd do for her as I've done since she was an infant.  Then last week, something changed.

I was frazzled at her bedtime, even more so than usual.  I told her to start reading alone and that I'd be there shortly.  Several times I peeked around the corner to her bottom bunk and heard her voice, a sound I'd bottle up and save forever if I could, reading page after page.  With her happy, I took advantage of a few extra moments to do dishes, prepare lunches or something else insignificant.  When finally I went to read to her, I was too late.

Her flashlight, off.  Her ZippySack kitty blanket, pulled up.  Her book, closed beside her.  For the first time in 5 years and 7 months, my baby had read herself to sleep.  And what did I do?

I cried like a baby.

My mother once gave me a book filled with the lyrics of Lee Ann Womack's song, "I Hope You Dance".  For any mother, they all ring to true.

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder...
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens...
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean...
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance...

I hope these and so many other things for my two truly amazing daughters.  And sure, even if they inherit their father's sense of rhythm, I hope they dance.  But way more importantly, I hope they read.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Who's To Blame For The Latest Inappropriate Halloween Costume? You Are.

A scary thing happens in this world once "Back to School" signage is replaced with all things "Pumpkin Spice".  Scarecrows replace swimmies in supermarkets and vanilla scented candles wipe out any lingering aroma of suntan lotion in homes.

(On a side note, I read once that burning an endless number of vanilla scented candles in your home will never cover up it's disfunction.  FYI.)

Being an east coast girl at heart (or at least by birthright) I cannot help but depend greatly upon the commercialization of seasonal change, as my car thermometer has read well into the 90's for the last week here in Los Angeles.  One thing I can't stand, however, is October's onslaught of articles aimed at "inappropriate", "tasteless" or "downright offensive" Halloween costumes.

Granted I've gotten a bit caught up in the hoopla before.  There was the one Halloween that planning a school party became so difficult due to multiple dietary restrictions in the classroom that I began to question how far is too far when it comes to limiting our children's intake.  Then there was the time even I got caught up in the fact that no size 2T Halloween costume should be called "Naughty Leopard".

I am still a firm believer that a woman (or certainly a little girl) doesn't need to be a slut to be a superhero.  But, the tone of so many costume-related pieces I've read lately has changed my tune a bit on who is to blame for this seemingly never ending cycle.

Whether it's complaints about Caitlyn Jenner:

or Cecil the Lion Killer:

or this interesting take on #BlueLivesMatter:

My opinion on each is the same.

I was a cigarette smoker through high school and most of college.  I will never forget the first shower I took after a night out in a bar as a non-smoker.  I untied my mane of long curly hair to wash it, and the moment the water hit my hair, it smelled like an ashtray.  I was repulsed.  But did I blame Marlboro?  No.  I blamed myself.

I believe the same applies here.

If we as consumers were not purchasing offensive costumes, manufacturers wouldn't be so motivated to make them.  Just as a television show can be pulled off the air mid-season because no one is watching, I'm sure that Party City would happily replace a poorly selling "Clock Bomb Boy" (inspired by 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed, who proudly brought a homemade timepiece to school before being handcuffed and questioned by authorities who suspected it may be an explosive).

To blame manufacturers for designing and profiting from questionable or tasteless Halloween costumes is diverting our attention in the wrong direction.

Blame the frat boy who buys "I Am Cait".  Blame the parent who buys fishnets and a garter for her young daughter.  Or, blame the person thoughtless enough to mock an incredibly intelligent Muslim teen who was scrutinized and shamed for doing what a blonde hair, blue eyed girl would have been commended for beyond words.

Manufacturers are simply doing their jobs by turning profits.

We as consumers are the ones at fault.

Actually, I think the look on "Ahmed's" face says it all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

It's The Most Wonderful Time... To Make a Difference (With Operation Christmas Child)

Operation Christmas Child is on my mind all year long.  When I spot classic novels in the Target dollar section in springtime, I scoop them up.  And when my daughters receive goodie bags at a summer birthday party, I squirrel the good stuff away.  I truly believe every little bit makes a difference.

I wish I could remember and thank whomever shared the very first post I saw about Operation Christmas Child on Facebook several years ago.  That's when I learned how this incredible program collects shoeboxes filled with gifts for a child who will receive nothing else on Christmas morning.  Nothing else.

That fall, I found the world's two most ginormous shoeboxes (one from each of my young girls) and packed them to the brim.  I've often wondered who those shoeboxes made smile more- me or the children who received them.  Selfishly, I'm pretty sure it was me.  The following year I wanted to pack more and more shoeboxes, but my heart was bigger than my checkbook.

I've never been good at asking for money (from anyone other than my mom).  When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2001 I was required to raise several thousand dollars for Brigham & Women's Hospital, who gave me my bib number.  Embarrassed to fundraise, I donated the money myself.  Years later, I regret doing that.  Had I worked up the hutzpah to ask for help, I'd likely have raised much more for the institution than the very minimum I was able to provide.  I wanted to make up for that.

So, sharing my first experience with Operation Christmas Child with my few but loyal readers and asking them to help me collect the goodies to help me pack more boxes made all the difference in the world.

While visiting family in New England this summer I came across The Legend of the Starfish for the very first time.

A vacationing businessman was walking a long a beach when he saw a young boy.  Along the seashore, there were many starfish that had been washed up by the tide and were sure to die before the tide returned.  The boy walked slowly along the shore, occasionally reaching down to toss the beached starfish back into the ocean.  The businessman, hoping to teach the boy a little lesson in common sense, walked up to him and said, "I have been watching what you are doing, son.  You have a good heart, and I know that you mean well, but do you realize how many beaches there are around the world and how many starfish are dying on those beaches everyday?  Surely such an industrious and kind-hearted boy like yourself could find something better to do with your time.  Do you really think what you are doing is going to make a difference?"  The boy looked at the man, and then he looked down at the starfish by his feet.  He picked up the starfish and as he gently tossed it back into the ocean he said, "it makes a difference to that one". (adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley, 1907-1977)

In life there are so many that need saving, and unfortunately not enough ways to save them.  But sometimes even the smallest effort can make an enormous difference.

Which, brings me back to Operation Christmas Child.  Here's the deal.

If you guys send me the goodies, I will purchase the plastic reusable shoebox size bins, pack them, wrap them and pay the $7 donation suggested per box for shipping.  You can send as many or as few items as you'd like.  You can shop at The Dollar Store or Barney's.  You can shop alone for peace and quiet or shop with your children to teach them a bit about the real spirit of giving.  You can even skip the shopping all together by making a homemade craft or a monetary donation (or both).

Some housekeeping:

- Click here to learn more about Operation Christmas Child.

- Each shoebox will be labeled with the sex and age of the child it is intended for (2-4, 5-9 or 10-14). In the past, I have received the least for the older children.  There is no collection for infants.

- There is a suggested donation list on the website.  I've included the standard stuff like crayons, coloring books, pens, pencil sharpeners and notepads.  People have also gotten really creative by donating wildflower seeds, aprons and glow-in-the-dark stars.  Sidewalk chalk, yo-yos, and jump ropes.  Or you can go the practical route with socks, undies, toothbrushes and soap.  Go crazy.  Shoebox-size crazy.

- Yes, I can take PayPal donations.  Personal checks are also wonderful.  I will save those funds until the end of the collection period and use them to buy whatever we are lacking.  Then I'll send you a photo of how far I helped your money go.

- Collection Week ends on November 23rd, which means my five and seven year old elves and I must have EVERYTHING packed, wrapped, labeled and ready to deliver by then.

Once the collection is over, I will provide an update like this one of how many boxes we were able to send and where in the world they went.  All that's left for you to do is take a moment on Christmas morning, I hope, to think of the child who will receive your gift and the smile it is sure to put upon his or her face.

If you have any questions or would like address information, please email me at klpm16@gmail.com.  I am also happy to help you find a local chapter where you can donate on your own.

I hope to hear from friends, family and strangers.  But most of all I hope that however you choose to spend your holiday season, a moment or two will be spent saving a starfish.

PS. There are 98 days until Christmas but only 62 until Collection Week begins!  So let me be the first to say... Happy Holidays!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Hardest Breakup Letter I've Ever Had To Write

Frankly, this is something I should have done a long time ago.  It's been on my mind for years, but whenever I looked back upon all that we have been through together, I just didn't have the heart.

You have provided for me a tremendously invaluable security.  When I was a scared little girl, you were my comfort zone.  You were there for the very first steps I ever took.  And when I fell, as we all do, you caught my fall.  You were my coziest pajamas and hot cocoa on a cold winter's night and my breath of fresh air on a much needed summertime adventure.  Somehow you taught me all there was to know about being a young child, for which I can never repay you.

As I moved into my incredibly difficult and awkward teenage years, again you were right there beside me, never letting go of my hand.  You saw everything from my ugliest hairstyle to my very first kiss (and some other firsts I don't care to mention) but loved me anyway.  There isn't a doubt in my mind that I loved you just as much.

It wasn't until my graduation from high school that things really began to change between us.  The more you protected me, the more I needed to take my own risks.  The more I replied upon your shelter, the more I needed to spread my own wings.  In a way it's like the stronger our connection grew, the more it confined me.  And I needed to break free.

It wasn't until we took time apart, several years in fact, that I saw and felt what I'd been missing.  What I'd thought was all I ever needed turned out to be nothing but the pitter-patter of a childhood crush compared to the true love I uncovered when I left.  Still, I tried.  I'd return to you every once in a while, for a holiday or special occasion, but it just wasn't the same.

They say that if you really love something, you need to let it go.  If it comes back to you, it is yours to keep.  But if it doesn't, it was never meant to be.  That's how I know my decision to leave was the best one for me.

The miles between us are far greater than I ever expected.  (There are 2,982 of them, to be exact.)  And my memories with you are irreplaceable.  I undoubtedly flourished with you... You helped mold me into the woman, wife and mother that I am today.  And it is for exactly that reason that I will never be back.

Leaving you was one of the more difficult break-up decisions I've ever had to make, but I couldn't be more grateful for it.  Thank you, my dear hometown, for being all that you are and all that you will never be.

Love, Me

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

7 Parenting Rules I Flat Out Refuse To Follow

Rules, rules, rules.  Every day is something new.

We need to drink more milk.  Eat less sugar.  Get more sleep.  Spend less time on our devices.  Exercise more.  And drink less alcohol, unless it's red wine, in which case 1.5 glasses per evening with a well-balanced dinner is good for you.

I don't mind being inundated with recommendations from doctors or even self-proclaimed "experts" telling me how to stay a healthy adult.  What I do mind, however, is being boldly told what I should and shouldn't do with my children.

Before you go having a temper tantrum, I fully recognize the hypocrisy I described.  I just don't care.

My concern is that we've become such a hypersensitive and hypercritical society that we almost get off on telling others what they should and should not do.  I live in Los Angeles where seemingly anyone with a heartbeat can add "expert" or "of the stars" to their name just because they want to.  I've learned to take every bit advice with a grain of salt.

So, here are 7 of the most popular parenting rules that I refuse to follow.

1) Don't say "awesome job".

Experts believe that using exclamations like "awesome job" and "good work" too frequently can lead to a child feeling as though they've let you down when they aren't, well... awesome.  Others suggest that such phrases can lead to a child performing well only to receive praise.

I believe if my daughter does so well that I am truly compelled to tell her she's done an awesome job, she deserves to hear it.  This goes for anything from coloring within the lines to scoring a 1600 on the SATs (which I pray are as irrelevant as Vanilla Ice is now by the time she is old enough to take them).  Squashing or suppressing my own excitement about the feat may lead to her doing the same, potentially causing way more harm.

2) Don't be a best friend.

I've vacillated back and forth on this one, but often find myself telling each of my daughters she is my best friend.  And I mean it.  Is she the best friend I call hysterically crying after a vicious argument with my spouse?  No.  And she certainly isn't the one with whom I want to share all my deepest, darkest secrets.  But I do want to be that friend to her.

I want her to know that she can tell me anything at anytime.  I want her to know I will support her, guide her, believe in her and love her no matter what.  I want to be there for her during the most difficult and most joyful moments of her life, whether or not she is there for mine.  To me, that's what being a best friend is all about.

3) Don't let your child watch more than (some tiny number) minutes of television daily.

Our pediatrician didn't want my children to see a frame of television before they were two years old and no more than twenty minutes a day for some time after that.  For me this was as difficult to accomplish as standing atop the Empire State Building while balancing a couch on one hand and a grand piano on the other.  Never going to happen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that children watch an average of 6 hours and 32 minutes of television daily, which I agree is complete blasphemy.  But somewhere between 20 and 392 minutes, there is a middle-ground.  And in some homes watching an excess of television is significantly safer and healthier than a more dangerous alternative.

At only seven years old my daughter begged me to bring her to a museum exhibit dedicated to the fall of Pompeii.  When we finally saw the gallery, clearly intended for adults, she listened to the headphone guided tour more intently than she has ever listened to me.  When I asked what first intrigued her about Pompeii, she said it was an episode of The Magic School Bus.

I've come to accept that the right programming can open corridors in my daughter's brain that I'd never have thought to travel with her.

4) Don't let your child know if you are on a diet.

I get it.  As a woman who has struggled with body image issues, I want very much to teach my daughters to rock incredible self-esteem while confidently living healthy and fulfilling lives.  Part of that lesson, without a doubt, is about assuming responsibility for your own body.

My kids eat McDonald's, love cherry Slurpees and can kill a sleeve of Oreos faster than you can read this article.  I don't prohibit nor do I even frown upon letting them eat (almost) whatever they want, as long as some kind of balance is struck.  That said, I want to be honest about how such habits can impact their bodies in the long term.  So if we go on vacation and I indulge with reckless abandon, I don't mind them knowing that I have to deal with those consequences.

How can letting my daughters see me commit to eating healthier meals, drinking more water and exercising more routinely for a few weeks in the hope of achieving a healthy goal be a bad thing?

5) Don't say "hurry up".

Experts believe repeatedly telling a child to "hurry up" raises their stress level and flusters them (potentially creating further delays) while "let's hurry" sends the message that you and your child are on the same team.

Here's the deal.  My daughter and I are on vastly different teams.  I am the Yankees to her Red Sox.  We may be in the same league, but she will do whatever she needs to win one over on me and I will do the same to her.

Getting out the door on time isn't about bonding.  It is about time management and responsibility, two things I hardly expect her to have mastered before the second grade.  In fact, I've hardly mastered those things myself.  So I let getting to places in a timely fashion be all about the task at hand and save the team playing for when it matters most.

6) Don't give financial rewards.

Using financial rewards for my 7.5 year old has proven incredibly beneficial.  She receives a whopping two dollars for a perfect spelling test or one dollar if she gets only one word wrong.  She also receives one dollar if she is awarded "Student of the Day" in her karate class.

Is her motivation for studying more about earning a buck toward an expensive Lego set than it is about furthering her education?  Absolutely.  But she masters her spelling words and gains a lot more from her karate class than she would otherwise.

7) Don't kiss on the lips.

Experts say kissing a child on the lips can "confuse" them.  I firmly believe that any child who grows up in a sexually healthy home understands the difference between a kiss from a lover and a kiss from a loved one.  Of course if my daughter ever seems "confused", startled or embarrassed by my quick peck on her lips, I'll stop.  But until then, we both pucker up!

While I assume you'll go nit-picking over these opinions for something to complain about (because that's what we do these days) keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule.  I don't support crash diets nor would I let my child diet unless it were medically necessary.  I don't allow television marathons and I don't chat with my daughter like I would an old friend while consuming exactly 1.5 glasses of red wine over a healthy dinner.

I do, however, live by my own set of rules (or at least one mutually agreed upon between myself and my husband) and think you should do the same.  But, I promise not to make that a rule.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Most Beautiful Lesson You'll Learn About Today's Ugly Society May Come From My 7yo

Call it a race war, class war, social war or just a war launched against anyone with a look or belief system different than your own.  No matter the nomenclature, it is impossible for any American to deny the terrifying state of our broken society.

I remember learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school.  I remember how the images I saw of water fountains assigned to only whites confused me as the water fountains in our school were for anyone that was thirsty.

Years later, after more in depth lessons taught me not only of segregation but of the numerous souls killed merely for the color of their skin, I was so thankful that my own children would be born into a colorblind world.  I too believed in Dr. King’s dream, and considered it a dream fulfilled.  Until recently.

Earlier this month I listened to an interview with a city official presiding not far from where the Sandra Bland incident took place.  How shocked I was to learn many funeral homes in that community are still segregated.  The idea that a business intended to respectfully and compassionately deal with death could turn a body (and soul) away based upon the color of it's skin made my stomach turn.

Instantly, I thought of my two children.

As the daughters of a woman obsessed with pop culture, I wondered how (or even if) my girls comprehend the constant news and water-cooler talk around them.  Between our home televisions, car stereos, multiple tablets, cell phones and even those little monitors now popping up on gas station pumps, the news is impossible to escape.  Then while driving through Los Angeles my eldest, age 7, had the most fascinating response to an Ant-Man billboard.  “It’s time for a superhero that turns from a man into a woman”, she said.

There is certainly a chance that her timing was merely coincidence, that the media’s saturation of yet another timely news story like Caitlyn Jenner’s had nothing to do with her statement.  But I so wanted to believe otherwise.

Last week while on family vacation we visited a New England splash pad packed with young kids looking to beat the heat, one of which was in a wheelchair.  Of the many potential playmates in the park that day, the same 7 year old who’d reacted so profoundly to the Ant-Man billboard chose to play almost exclusively with the girl in the wheelchair.

Credit: Karri-Leigh Mastrangelo
As the park radiated with laughter and cheer, much of which came from this duo, it was clear my daughter chose her new friend not because she felt badly for her, but because she was fun.  I saw a big difference between the two girls.  My daughter did not.

Somehow, this vision brought my scattered feelings about today’s world full circle.

Instead of crying over the resurgence of discrimination in our country, I am choosing to focus on (and hopefully spread) the just-as-present resurgence of acceptance and compassion.

It may be na├»ve for me to believe that for every person spreading hate in our world, there is another spreading love.  But, my young daughter gives me that hope.

For if my soon-to-be second grader has learned to look right through a person’s exterior, be it colored, disfigured or noticeably different in any of the millions of ways possible, to see straight to their soul- you can too.

Just maybe, by my sharing her story, she’s helped to teach you how.