Bad Choices

To the Parents of the Three Stooges at My Daughter’s Concert Last Saturday . . .

My daughter sang in a choir concert last week. Thirty kids. A couple of songs. It was lovely.


The couple next to me brought three young children.

In my head, I got judgy. Really judgy. Like I couldn’t focus very well on the second song my kid was singing about nature because these three kids were talking and dancing and whining about an iPhone and throwing a baby doll at the ceiling.

I also have three children.

So I get it.

Three children is bonkers.

Three children is somebody always crying about the game and how it wasn’t fair or the bacon and how she got more or the bathroom and how it’s my turn or the elevator and how he got to press the button last time.

Three children is hard.

And having three children was kicking that mom and dad’s butt last Saturday. At least, I think it was. Because when I wasn’t judging, I was wondering. What is going on over there? Are they okay? Should I say something?

I wanted to. I think maybe I should have. The kids were actually closer to me than they were to their parents. I could have asked in a super-small voice if they could please keep it down because my little girl was up there on stage singing about fireflies and maybe could they please sit down or play the silent game for 45 more seconds? Pretty please?

Except, I did not know their parents. And even if I did use my best preschool teacher voice, mom and dad would have wondered who was that strange scary lady talking to their kids?

So I could have said something to the grown-ups. You know, in between songs, just crouched or scooted over there to say little Larry, Curly, and Trixie were kind of ruining my mommy mojo. Maybe tell them about the bake sale outside in the breezeway.

But I didn’t say anything.

Know why?

You can’t say anything.

You just can’t.

Those were other people’s children. Not mine. If they were my cousin’s or student’s or my best friend’s kids, I could have gently intervened. Dudes, pop a squat, my child is singing about wildflowers.

My own children have been corrected by strangers. I usually don’t mind it. I figure if it doesn’t apply, let it fly. And I appreciate when someone tells me: Your son is climbing on that window ledge. Or I think you left your daughter in the ice cream aisle. I will take all the help I can get. Mostly.

But not always. One time during church, when my grandmother was sick and my heart was aching, I just kind of handed over the parenting reins to Jesus. As I quietly wept, my kids argued over the hymnal and knocked over a kneeler on someone’s foot during the Sign of Peace. It was not our finest hour. And it was made worse, not better, when the well-intentioned stranger came to me afterwards to give me some parenting advice. She had a book, she said, and she would send it to me. It helped moms like me raise kids like those.

Moms like me. . . kids like those.

We never entirely know, do we, which kind of mom or dad anybody is. If you see me on my best day, I’m baking bread with my kids, reading, singing, dancing, gardening. We’re riding bikes. We’re playing games. It’s all love and joy all the time.

But catch me on a bad day and I’m swearing. Not at the kids, but definitely about them. And near them. Closing their car door, frackin’sacking-frackin’sacking, and then opening my own. There are days when my kids feel like too much for me.

Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Choir Concert Crumb Bum were having one of those days. Maybe the games and the bacon and the bathroom and the elevator button had just done them in. Or maybe those kids weren’t even theirs. Maybe they were watching somebody else’s kids on that parent’s worst day and the babysitting adults were just as horrified as I was.

It is possible that they were just crappy parents. That’s what I was thinking for most of the song about sadness. And I wanted very badly to tell them that.

But even if they were the worst parents, they didn’t need my judgment right then. They needed my prayers. And my kindness. And looks of solidarity rather than scorn.

And I needed some perspective. It was just a kids’ concert, after all. Not an ordination or a wedding or funeral. And who knows? Maybe what looked like a family falling apart was actually a family trying desperately to keep it together.



How The Worst Typhoon In History Taught Me To Appreciate Crying Babies


Adapted from Our New Book, Here Be Dragons


I never really liked babies. I love my own, of course. But that’s a genetic imperative. Other people’s babies? For most of my adult life, my feelings ranged from mild disinterest to barely concealed annoyance. I never found their outfits particularly cute or their peek-a-boo games terribly entertaining. And travelling with them on airplanes? I always said I would rather be stuck in the back-row-middle seat next to the toilet, than be sitting anywhere near someone else’s baby in flight. Until, that is, I went to the Philippines. In November of 2013, forty minutes after sunrise, in the wake of the worst typhoon in recorded human history, I changed my mind about kids.

When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on November 8, 2013, it brought sustained winds of 196 miles per hour, and gusts topping 250. Had it hit the United States, its outer bands would have stretched from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, CA. I flew into the disaster zone with a medical relief team, on one of the first Marine Corps C-130s carrying aid workers. We landed on a pitch-black runway in a city with no lights. Amidst the rubble of a military barracks, we established our forward operating base.

The next morning, at first light, we boarded a Philippine Air Force Huey and headed south. What we saw confirmed our worst fears. Nothing was left intact. Even the sturdiest buildings had their roofs ripped away. The storm surge had rushed for miles, reducing houses to matchsticks. Ships lay hundreds of yards inland, like toys dropped amid the debris. I have been in warzones. But nothing compared to the devastation I saw flying along the Philippine coastline.

We circled the village of Tanauan and identified what we assumed was the clinic. Between the scattered rubble and crowds of people, there was no way to land. So we diverted to a strip of empty beach a few miles away. As we approached, people sprinted towards the descending helicopter. The pilot hovered a few feet off the ground, and we leapt. As our ride lifted away, a crowd of villagers gathered. We had been warned that they might try to take our supplies. The opposite was true. They were hungry and scared, but grateful, and they helped us make our way to the clinic.

The makeshift hospital was set up inside the former city hall, one of the only buildings left with walls still standing. Hundreds were already gathered, seeking medical help. Most had walked miles. Wounds were starting to fester, and the air stank of gangrene. I made my way to the second floor where a surgery was underway.


All day and all night, patients arrived in a steady stream, bearing gaping, jagged gashes, many of them showing signs of gangrene. For a rookie like me, those injuries were at least straightforward. Open, clean, disinfect, pack, and bandage. That I could handle.

The “injury” that knocked me off balance, oddly enough, had nothing to do with the typhoon. Late one evening, a pregnant woman arrived on the back of a moped. She was in labor, but struggling. The clinic was blacked out, lit only by the occasional flashlight and our headlamps bobbing up and down as we worked. Patients lay huddled in groups on the floor. Our OBGYN led the expectant mother to the “operating table,” and immediately determined a normal delivery was out of the question. Because of how the baby was positioned, a C-section would be necessary to save the lives of both mother and child.

The surgeons decided to begin the operation at dawn. When the first ray of sun split the horizon, I said a prayer. Please help this mother. Please save this baby. As the surgery began, a few of us huddled on the floor around a camp stove. Someone brewed a pot of tea, and we sat in silence, sipping from tin mugs, straining to hear the doctors talking softly to each other as they worked. Then, a sound I will never forget. A baby’s cry, healthy, strong, and defiant.

I felt the sun warming my neck, looked down into my cup, and wept. I tried to make my tears less obvious. My team in the Philippines included some of the toughest people I have ever known: combat medics, Special Forces operators, a paratrooper from the French Foreign Legion. When I looked up, I could see we all felt the same thing—our faces wore identical expressions of exhaustion and relief, but above all—joy. That baby may have been crying the loudest, but we all joined in varying degrees.

Six hours after that sunrise, we called in a Philippine Air Force helicopter to evacuate our most critical patients. A cardiac case, an amputee, a new mother, and a six-hour-old baby girl were airlifted to Manila. Miracles do happen. Even in the wake of tragedy. To this day, whenever I hear a baby cry, I smile inside.

Even on airplanes.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Bad Choices

Pajama Day

It went about as badly as it could have.

It was Pajama Day at school—some sort of Spirit Week thing, I guess—so my kiddo and I woke up an hour early this morning to go shopping.

That’s right.

I awakened a child already in pajamas so she could put on clothes to go purchase pajamas to wear to school.

If you do not already have a tween, this is just a little bit of the cray-cray you can look forward to.

We are a low-key jammie family. Sometimes the kids get matchy-matchies for Christmas, but otherwise, our PJs are usually just t-shirts too worn, stained, or see-through to wear out in public anymore. This blasé approach to overnight garments has not heretofore been a problem. Until today. Freakin’ Pajama Day.

Pajama Day prompted the meltdown last night. Which led to the argument. And the words we should not say. Which led to the apologies. And the problem-solving wherein my oldest child strategized that she would pay for the superfluous new pajamas with her allowance money. Which led to the two of us standing in a department store at 7 o’clock this morning.

The only place open that early was north of the airport, an unpredictable drive on weekdays, but we made it in good time. We even saw a Panera nearby.

“Mom, I’ll just grab the first jammies I see and we can split a quiche before school.” That was my kid. Always making the best of things.


We don’t shop very often. New shoes as needed. Occasional sprees with Grandma. We are a hand-me-down kind of family. We had never been to this department store. It took us a few minutes to get our bearings.

After asking directions, twice, we ended up in Women’s Sleepwear, where even the puppies on the nightgowns looked severe.   Around the corner, I found a Kids’ Zone with princesses, bubble gum, and unicorns affixed on every nightgown. Was there no area in between? At age 11, my daughter is a hybrid—part grown-up, part child, part sulking puppy, part unicorn. She loves softball and sushi and sweet boba tea. She sleeps with a stuffed animal, but she is also taller than I am. It can be difficult to find her styles, not to mention her sizes. She still likes bright “kid colors” – pink, purple, bright green, turquoise – but palettes become more subdued as sizes increase. Out of habit, I grabbed a handful of larges and extra larges, but once in the dressing room, we discovered that a child’s large was too small, and a woman’s large dwarfed her small frame.

Where was the tween wear? The LOL fleeces, those annoying emoji shirts?

My daughter ducked into the fitting room and declared the first pajamas at least a partial success. “Mom, I found a pair of plaid pants that will work,” my daughter called from the fitting room. “It is part of a set, but the shirt is totally see-through. I’ll just wear the t-shirt I brought in the car.”

“The vacation bible camp t-shirt from two years ago?” I asked. That was one of the shirts that had prompted this preposterous shopping trip in the first place. Last night, it had been rejected as not pajama-y enough. “I’ll find you a better top,” I replied.

“No, Mom,” she growled. “I don’t like the shirts here.”

“How can you say that? You’ve only tried on one. I’ll be right back.” I paged through rack after rack, and pulled anything that looked like a possibility. I brought back about fifteen pajama-like tops, and one by one, she tried them on and nixed them all. Too big, too itchy, too small, too green.

“Mom, you aren’t listening to me,” Katie wailed, after the ninth shirt.

Not listening? I was standing in a department store at 7:30 in the morning. To find pajamas for a kid who was now grousing at me for trying to find her pajamas. Now we were both angry. This was what I got for giving in to her ridiculousness: more ridiculousness.

“Just pick a shirt,” I replied. “And let’s get out of here. We are going to be late for school.”

“What about Panera?” she cried. “We were going to have breakfast, remember?”

When I reflect back on situations during which my daughter and I have clashed, I can usually point to a moment — when I could have righted the ship, steered us toward a safe harbor rather than deeper into distress. I now realize that this was such a moment. I could have taken my tween to breakfast. After all, there is nothing easy about being eleven years old, feeling simultaneously big and small, both responsible for yourself and utterly dependent on your mom. Even the department store could hardly figure out who my daughter was, with all those sizes and styles scattered willy-nilly. Breakfast would have made us twenty minutes late to school. But over eggs and toast, we could have laughed about how badly pajama shopping had gone. I could have parented us through this dicey situation.

Instead, I steered us toward the rocks.

“We don’t have time for breakfast now,” I replied tersely. “Hand me the pajamas you are buying, and get dressed.”

She half-heartedly tossed the pair of plaid pants over the changing room door, and muttered to herself about the meanest Mom ever.

Unfathomably, there was a line at the checkout counter. Other parents, I supposed, trying to placate their children with early morning retail. When it was our turn, the clerk said, “These pants appear to be part of a set. Where is the top?”

I turned to my kid. “I told you,” she said. “I don’t want the top. It’s too see-through.”

“Yes, but you have to—” I broke off. “Never mind,” I said. “We’ll be right back.”

We strode back to the dressing room full of children’s and adult sleepwear in a heap.

“Find the shirt,” I ordered.

“But I don’t want it!” she replied.

“Yes, so you’ve mentioned. But the store will not sell them separately. Find it.”

“That’s dumb,” she replied, and dug through the pile and unearthed a sheer sky blue shirt and thrust it at me.

Here was another opportunity. This was the first thing we had agreed upon all morning. We could have talked about the economics at play in pairing a great pair of pajama pants with a sub-par shirt. Or I could have applauded the modesty which had prompted my child to reject the sleazy shirt in the first place. Instead, I hustled her along—back to the checkout line, to the car, and ultimately to school. En route, she changed into her new plaid pants—the very first pair she had tried on an hour earlier, before I had offered her dozens of other choices and clogged up our entire morning.

In her new pants and her ratty old camp t-shirt from two years ago, she looked perfect. And, for once, I told her so. “You look great, kiddo.”

“Never doubt my sense of fashion, Mom,” she said. And my grown-up little girl closed the car door and headed into school.

Maybe she isn’t the one confused about growing up. Maybe I am.






Bravery Takes Practice

I took my 10-year-old daughter to the Hollywood sign last week.  On clear days, we can see it from our house, and we’ve always talked about hiking up.  There is an easy route, heavy with tourist traffic, paved and well marked.  There is also a difficult one.  Two miles of rocky terrain and a thousand-foot elevation change.  That was the path we took.  At one point, the rocky trail traversed a ridge with a 300-foot drop on one side.  I made sure to keep Katie close to me for that part.

We’ve gotten better at these sorts of adventures.  I have become more patient.  Katie seldom cries anymore.   And though she is bold by nature, bravery still takes practice.  So, every few weeks, we plan an outing, and we test ourselves.  This time, it was the tough trail to the Hollywood sign. On other occasions, we have hiked the Grand Canyon, canoed white-water rapids, and snorkeled with leopard sharks (that one could have gone better).DadvMom.com_WhyWePracticeBeingBrave_SeaLions

Watching a movie, or playing video games together, would be easier.  And safer too.  Unless, that is, one weighs the risks of a childhood without adventure, of entering adulthood without having learned to navigate real challenges.  Sure, bad things might happen.  But such is the case with most things worth doing.  It’s the case with life itself. For my kids, the best way to learn the difference between risks worth taking, and ones better left alone, is to practice.

After our hike, Katie showed pictures to her friends.  A few were wide-eyed at the sight of the cliff.  She said, “Adventures are worth the mishaps.”  It’s clearly a borrowed phrase, and I am not sure Katie entirely grasps what it means.  But I like that her brain is starting to work that way.  She is beginning to understand the kinds of rewards that such endeavors can bring.  In time, she will appreciate the depth of character they can build.  And although our weekend exploits are mostly about the physical, they do feed another kind of bravery.

Only some of the challenges Katie is sure to face in life will require brawn.  The greatest tests will be moral ones.  I want her to be prepared, bold not only in the face of physical dangers, but brave in the way she treats others.  As proud as I am when she scales a cliff or surfs a big wave, nothing compares to what I feel when she draws on bravery to be kind.  As a ten-year-old, that may be as simple as inviting the new kid to sit with her at lunch – which she has done.  As a grown-up, standing up for others will involve far greater risks.

I can hope against hope that Katie will never be tested that way, never find herself staring down a mob or defending innocent lives in a warzone.  If I had my way, her greatest moral challenges would involve writing op-eds for the local paper or getting the school library to stock good books (you know, the ones with dangerous ideas). But I know my kid.  She is moved by the suffering of others, and will help those in need wherever that may lead.

That is why we practice being brave.  Some day, Katie will have to draw from the well we have filled together.  In that moment, she will learn how deep it goes.  And maybe, if I have done my job right, she will remember my hand on her shoulder, guiding her past the cliffs towards the big white sign over the next ridge.


A version of this story appeared on on Nov. 2, 2015.

The Writing Process

Interrupting Ducks

“Whatever you do, don’t bother Mom while she’s writing,” cautioned Ken as he zipped out to the garage.

Which is why Katie only asked for a little help with her candy-making stand. She needed marshmallows. And caramels. And Rice Krispies. And chocolate molds. And wax paper.

“Mom is writing, so just let her be,” reminded Ken as he opened his computer.

Which is why Lizzie only needed me to photograph three of the costumes that she put on her stuffed pig.

And why Henry crawled into my lap and fell asleep.

Our kids drive me batty sometimes. They do not understand the sanctity of my work time.


Then again, they are the inspiration for my work. Their shenanigans fuel my stories; their silliness softens my heart. Because of them, I get to say all manner of things I have never said before.

     No, Lizzie, it is not ‘illegal’ to kick a volleyball.

     No, Henry, you cannot bring three owls and a puppy into church.

     No, Katie, I will not eat that spider for a dollar.

     Yes, Lizzie, I would love to see your pig’s new talent show.

     Girls, stop fighting over that cucumber.

     Lizzie, even if Katie said she would pay you a dollar, please do not shoot that arrow at your father’s butt.

     No, thank you, Katie. I do not want a chocolate-covered hard-boiled egg.

I sometimes envy my writer friends who have offices, computer desks, and uninterrupted hours in which to create.

When I really need to do serious writing, I drive to the grocery store. They have a couple tables near the check out. It is quieter there. Plus, afterwards, I can buy milk.

But mostly, I prefer to write past bedtime. I tuck myself here in the alcove, just me and the spiders, and maybe a cup of tea.  I type through the shadows, thankful, always so very thankful, that the kids’ stories light up the dark.





Health & Fitness & Oreos

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The greatest thing about having a child is putting yourself second in your own life.

— Louis C.K.

Ken works occasionally in San Francisco, and since this is one of my favorite cities in the universe, the kids and I occasionally tag along. This past weekend, we stayed opposite the water in lovely Pacifica. But after a shabby night’s sleep in a stuffy hotel room, I decided I needed a walk. I meandered a trail beside the ocean, and it was glorious – blue-green water, salty sea air, breathtaking vistas. I breathed deeply and felt lucky. We have neither wealth nor fame nor power, but we have good love, good adventures, and good kids.

It was warmer than I anticipated so before heading up the steepest trail, I zipped back to the car for sunscreen and a hat. In the hotel parking lot, I felt selfish for keeping such a scenic sojourn all to myself. I ventured upstairs to see if anyone wanted to join in.

My three precious yahoos were sitting in the Jacuzzi tub eating mini-muffins, drinking apple cider, and watching the Disney Channel. Ken was asleep.




“I found an awesome trail!” I announced. “Who is up for a cool hike?”

No one acknowledged me. I stepped in front of the television and asked again.

“Hey, guys. Anyone want to come hiking?”

“Mom, I can’t see the TV.”



Ken muttered that he would like to come with, but then rolled over and went back to sleep.

That should have been my cue. They were on vacation. They had muffins. And crap TV. They were happy.

Instead, I muted the program to clarify my suggestion – the blue-green water, that crisp sea air. Again, they declined. It turns out that children do not care about these things. And again, I failed to make my exit. Instead, I cajoled, complained, and insisted. Had we really driven six hours to watch television? Didn’t family walks always make us happy? Wouldn’t it be great to discover some hole-in-the-wall seafood shack for lunch?

After you live with folks for a while, you learn their particular kind of crazy. When Ken and the kids realized I was not going to drop this, they begrudgingly acquiesced.

It took nearly ninety minutes, but eventually, everyone was washed, dried, and dressed for the wonderful family outing I had declared. We set off up, up, up the hill.


It was strange to be ascending with people so obviously downtrodden.

It was hotter than it had been when I originally set out. My formerly energetic pace was quickly slackened by grumbles, quarrels, and literal foot-dragging.

“I’m hot.”

“Walking is dumb.”

“I can’t believe we’re missing ‘A.N.T. Farm’ for this.”

I should have left them at the hotel. What kind of idiot drags kids out of a hot tub to go hiking? If and when we ever finished this dirty ramble, they were just going to need another bath. I had desperately wanted to share this outing with them, and as soon as we began sharing the outing, I desperately wanted them to go away.


That’s the funny thing about doing anything with children. It does not matter what you do or where you go – Disney World, a restaurant, ice skating, the bathroom, the library, the airport, the mall — the very presence of the children makes doing that thing more difficult and usually less enjoyable. I often wonder why we bring our children anywhere at all.

They made me cranky and I made them cranky, and various threats were lobbed regarding the abandonment of the entire business, but we kept going anyway – me, because I refused to return to the hotel yet again without first climbing this damn hill, and them, because … well, they are kids, and kids are prone to follow trails and sidewalks until they end. Shel Silverstein taught us that.


And here’s the thing: it’s actually really hard to stay angry when you are A. exercising, and B. face to face with beauty. It just is. And C. It’s hard to stay mad at your children when they have stopped being mad at you.

So, what began as a swift, splendid hike by myself turned into a slow, terrible hike with the kids. And then, for about eleven minutes, that same slog turned kind of awesome again. We caught a lizard. We reached the summit. We followed a secret trail to a hidden cove. We ate wild fennel on the beach. We even made it halfway back to the car before everyone started arguing again.


That trek was different with our children there. It was so much worse, but also a little better.

And yet another reminder that we have neither wealth nor fame nor power, but we have good love, good adventures, and good kids. Mostly.


A Year Without a Television

It has been 53 weeks since we gave away our television. My daughters cried more about giving up that TV than they did about leaving their school and most of their friends.

Initially, it was not a deliberate decision. We were moving. The unit was mounted in the family room. The folks purchasing the house inquired as to whether we would leave it. Since we were driving our own U-Haul cross-country, we figured it more than likely that that we would pack the truck poorly and shatter the TV on some icy curve in the Rockies. So we left it.

When we arrived in our new town, we rented a small cottage where we would live while we looked for our real house that we intended to purchase. It seemed silly to buy a television for that tiny living room when our future room would likely require a different-sized unit.

Thus began our year-long experiment in television-less-ness.

During which, we learned a few things:

  1. Television is a handy extra parent. I had not thought we watched much TV until I was forced to live without it. I had forgotten about the way Uncle TV kept the kids entertained while I made dinner, the way he quieted arguments, and helped settle the kids down after a busy day.
  1. Television helps us fit in. Recent pop culture references were lost on my kiddos. They didn’t know what a Lego Ninjago was last Halloween or what the big deal was about Sofia the First when it came to purchasing a back-to-school knapsack.
  1. It is hard to watch sports without a TV. I missed the Super Bowl and March Madness and my Cleveland Cavaliers’ amazing run. Clips and sound bytes after the game are just not the same.
  1. Other electronics conspired to take the television’s place. First one iPad and then another. An upgrade on Dad’s smartphone freed up an old one for household use. Television time decreased, but gaming increased. My 3-year-old can now beat me at Temple Run II. And Subway Surfer. And Fruit Ninja.
  1. Saying you don’t have a television allows you to feel momentarily superior to other people. As though you are somehow above The Bachelor, the orange and black prison show, and all those Housewives. Except that self-importance is fleeting. Because then you sense those people sensing you sensing yourself superior to them…and then it’s just awkward. And also untrue. It wasn’t like I lived off the grid. I just watched Game of Thrones on my laptop instead of a television.

But kids are pretty awesome and capable, and I think sometimes television can get in the way of that. It makes them receivers rather than creators. In the year away from TV, Lizzie became an Artist. She taught herself to draw horses, and sea creatures, and Rapunzel-esque princesses with hair tumbling out of castles and carriages. She became an Author, an Archer, and a Friend. Katie became a Scientist. She soldered a radio, studied circuitry, and mixed batches of pink slime in the kitchen sink. She became a Musician, a Swimmer, a Reader, and a Mathematician. Henry became independent. He learned to entertain himself with puzzles and trucks and cars. He became a Gardener, a Conversationalist, and a Chef. Maybe all of these things would have happened in the presence of the Disney Channel anyway. But I’m not so sure.

All I know is that ever since we plugged in the new TV last week, my children have been happy little zombies. They have eaten, slept, and laughed in front of the television. And drawn almost nothing at all.

In our family, cake and ice cream are Sometimes Foods, treats that we indulge in every once in awhile. I think Uncle TV needs to be a Sometimes Friend, popping in for a weekend movie night, or maybe a couple sitcoms when someone is sick. For now, however, he is an unwelcome houseguest. I’m not entirely certain we should let him stay.





February 14.  The one holiday when it is impossible not to think just a teensy bit about the L-word.

Lima beans.

Wait, that’s two words. Okay, then. LOVE.

If you have not yet read Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times article entitled, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” please go do that now. Seriously, it is better than anything I am about to say.

However, if you have already read it, or have just returned from reading it, please continue. I have a thought or two on the subject.

I have just finished helping my kiddos prepare their Valentine’s cards, a process that began with excitement, was hindered by crying and dishevelment — not unlike most projects around here – and ended with a sort of weary pride. This year, the prevailing argument centered on why I never let them buy the pre-fab boxed cards.

“Because that is cheating,” I said.

“Cheating?” said the Katie, the oldest. “But Valentine’s Day isn’t a test.”

“Besides, Mom,” complained my 5-year-old, “I can’t even draw a good heart.” It was at approximately this point in the evening that little Lizzie fled to her room to cry in her closet.

I had told the kids that hand-made cards were more thoughtful, and that Valentine’s Day was a chance to share our kind feelings with those we loved.

“But I don’t love most of these people, Mom,” Katie complained. “They are just kids in my class.”

Later, after the cards were completed and the kids were tucked in bed, I looked over Lizzie’s pile of professed mess-ups. There were more than two-dozen attempts to draw a heart. All of them lovely. So earnest. So sweet. So much like her. But she had had an idea in her head about what the perfect Valentine was to look like, and no amount of cajoling by me could bring her around to the idea that all of her hearts were wonderful.

Once again, I think I failed to teach the lesson I thought I was teaching.

Here’s the thing: Valentine’s Day is kind of stupid. Kids sending meaningless cards to other kids is stupid. For most of us, Valentine’s Day is just one more excuse to eat more candy than we should, drink more wine than we need, and argue with the person we love about why he/she didn’t buy us something better.

But, as a kid, I freaking loved Valentine’s Day. I would look carefully at each card I received in my brown paper lunch bag. Had Todd signed Love, Todd to everyone or just me? Did Jeff purposely give me the card with a red heart instead of a pink one? Everyone knew red hearts were more romantic. Of course, now that I have children of my own, I am certain that neither Jeff nor Todd nor any of the other half-dozen or so boys I professed to “love” on those Valentine’s Days gave much thought at all to their cards. They were doing what my kids were doing: just trying to get them done.

These days, teachers are smart. Both of my girls were asked not to put the recipients’ names on the Valentines. “Just pass out one to everyone,” Mrs. M. encouraged. That way, no one got anything special from anyone else. And, of course, no one got hurt.

Except we lose something, don’t we? when we treat everyone exactly the same. If Valentine’s Day serves any purpose whatsoever, it is a yearly reminder to demonstrate affection, to allow ourselves to know and be known.

Which gets me back to Mandy Len Catron’s piece. Catron referenced a study conducted twenty years ago by a psychologist, Arthur Aron, that purported to create love in a laboratory. In the study, two strangers were simply asked to answer a series of questions together. The end result: affection. Catron tried this same “experiment” herself, and described the strange intimacy of passing an evening puzzling through Aron’s questions with a person she barely knew.

It seems to me that all of us, whether we are in a relationship or not, could benefit from an infusion of laboratory-tested intimacy. Maybe this Valentine’s Day, instead of dinner or a movie, just sit and talk to someone you love (or are hoping to love). Not fake talk, of celebrity gaffes or television plots. But real talk. Find someone you love and answer some questions together.

This Valentine’s Day, allow yourself to be known.


For those who need extra encouragement, I’ll start:

Question # 4 – What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

Years ago, this probably would have involved lying on a beach in a far off land or attempting to sing and dance on a Broadway stage. But these days, my perfect day is simpler. I would awaken feeling rested, having slept more than enough. I would eat breakfast in a chair, a proper eggs and bacon on a plate situation, rather than toast balanced on the washing machine or chips munched as I pack lunches. I would tell my kids I love them and see them walk safely into school among friends. I would exercise hard — run and lift and jump — and not hear a peep from my wonky knee or Achilles. I would bathe afterwards, and wash and comb my hair. I would remember to wear deodorant. I would write, read, and laugh with people I love. And then I would sleep some more. [As I read over this answer, it sounds so DULL, but honestly, most days, I don’t manage any of this.]

Question #30 – When did you last cry in front of another person?

Last Thursday. At Target. In broad daylight. And much to the chagrin of the lady working in Customer Service. To be fair, it had been a difficult shopping excursion. I had a sick kid. I was late for a party. I couldn’t find the tablecloths. No one would help me. Looking back, I don’t even know what triggered it, except that the lady in my checkout line was roughly the seventh person who had failed to help me that day. Raising kids takes a village and, that day, I was a shoddy solo act. I had all kinds of keenly mean things to say – about decency, and dignity, and the kind of women we should be to one another in this difficult world. Instead, I cried. More on that here.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Laugh. Cry. Go let yourself be known.



Seven Lessons I Learned Trick-or-Treating

As I sit here rifling through my kids’ pumpkin buckets, sneaking a Snickers here and a couple Kit Kats there, I am pleased that Halloween is officially in the books. However, as with any holiday celebrated in the company of hyperactive children, there were some takeaways:

1. Trick-or-treating with a beverage in a red Solo cup is permissible, as long as you are accompanied by kids. Trick-or-treating with a beverage in a red Solo cup is suspect if you are A) a single man dressed up as a mammogram machine, or B) all alone.

2. There is a candy hierarchy. Like it or not, neighbors judge you based on what you hand out. Want to blend in? Tootsie Rolls are fine. M&M’s or any product in the Hershey’s genre will get you there. But Smarties? Smarties were a crap candy in 1974 and they are a crap candy today. Dum Dums are not much better. If the candy is available for free at a local bank, it is best not to distribute it. But to the fellow on Sycamore Street who handed out the whole Twix bars: you are a Golden God.

3. Scented candles, particularly lavender or pine, may soothe guests in a massage parlor or spa, but they are disconcerting choices inside of jack-o-lanterns. For reasons unknown to science, they pretty much smell like pee.

4. The teeniest, dumbest kids get the most candy. Deal with it. My two-year-old son yelled “Trick or Treat” at shrubbery, birdfeeders, and several mailboxes. But when he reached the front porch of every house, he went silent. He did not say “Please.” He did not say “Thank you.” But because he is only three feet tall, folks gave him handfuls of goodies again and again and again.

5. To the kiddos: 364 days of the year, when a strange man invites you into the haunted voodoo tent in his garage, say NO. In fact, call the police. On Halloween, go on in. It turns out the shrunken heads are actually licorice flavored.

6. To the parents: 364 days of the year, when your kids ask if they can eat more candy, say NO. But on Halloween, say YES. Actually say the words: “Eat more candy.” The shock alone will probably cause the kids to eat less than they would have had you argued about it. Plus, for about forty-five minutes anyway, they will think you are awesome.

7. And finally, when the sugar crash hits, whether the kid falls to the sidewalk in a full-on tantrum, or merely falls asleep with his face in a pile of Milk Duds, it’s all right. The kids are not evil; the parents are not ineffectual. It’s Halloween. Despite how scary things may look, no real harm has been done. It is just time to call it a night.

Originally published on the Huffington Post.

Health & Fitness & Oreos

Why I Taught My Daughter to Punch

You are approaching that age now, when you look around and see how other dads raised their daughters. You are noticing that I did things differently, that you are not like other little girls, the ones who never leave home without a ribbon in their hair. You are brave and curious, and are beginning to realize that these qualities are not accidents. I want to explain why, because it will help you understand the way you are.

I taught you how to punch. Not because you should grow up fighting, but because, if ever forced to, you should know how. I once saw a little girl in Afghanistan who had acid thrown in her face because she wanted to go to school. You are not yet ready to know what some people do to each other, but I want you to be prepared. You will grow stronger every day, and the moment will come when you will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

I have nurtured your curiosity. When we found the spider under our orange tree with the red hourglass on her belly, we did not kill her. We watched, night after night, as she tended her web and waited patiently. We read books about her, and told jokes about how she ate her boyfriends for lunch. And when she finally caught a beetle, we watched her strike and wrap it tight with silk. You found that the things which scare most little girls have the most to teach us.

I let you learn hard lessons. You wanted to walk barefoot to the park through six inches of snow, so I tucked your boots in my backpack and said, “Let’s go.” When your stubborn feet had nearly turned to ice, we rubbed your toes until they were warm, and I pulled out your boots and socks and slipped them on. You discovered that winter footwear, however unstylish, is a good thing. You also learned that cold feet, however uncomfortable, will not kill you.

I taught you to respect nature, to hunt and to fish. Not for the sake of killing, but because the surest way to honor the living earth is to be part of it. You dug for worms and baited your own hooks, and most of the time we cooked what we caught. We raised chickens together and loved them, and ate the eggs they laid and offered thanks. You know and love the world that sustains us, and you understand that meat does not grow on grocery store shelves inside plastic wrapping.

I allowed you to test your limits. When we surfed together, you paddled towards the outside break, even as the big waves kept pushing you back. You fought, and failed, but not really. We rode in, side by side, determined to try and try again until we owned the sea. Some day we will catch that giant storm-driven wave and the crowd on the beach will rise to its feet and marvel at the little girl riding down the mountain of water.

I taught you these things, because one day I will let you go. You will walk down a long aisle to start another life and another family. You will be perfect and beautiful. But no one will mistake that beauty for fragility. You will fight for others, while seeking new wonders. You will run barefoot through snow, while exalting all of creation. You will live life to its fullest, testing your own limits while obliterating those set by others.

Until then, be proud of who you are. Never let anyone tell you what a woman can and cannot do. And should someone make fun of how little girls hit, offer to teach them. Smile politely, square your stance, and give fair warning. Then knock the effing wind out of them. Because that is how a girl should punch.

Originally appeared in the Huffington Post, and reprinted at